Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 7 Feb 2001

Vol. 530 No. 1

Carer's Leave Bill, 2000: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be new read a Second Time."

The Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, was in possession.

I will complete the Minister of State's speech.

Carer's leave terminates when the employee ceases to personally provide full-time care and attention for the relevant person in respect of whom the carer's leave was taken, for example, where another person begins to provide full-time care and attention to the relevant person. The leave shall also terminate when a deciding officer or an appeals officer of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs makes a decision, on reference by an employer, that the person being cared for is not a relevant person for the purposes of the Bill. Section 11 also provides that carer's leave shall continue for up to six weeks after the death of the relevant person, subject to the period of carer's leave in the confirmation document not having expired.

Section 12 provides for the postponement, curtailment and variation of the form in which carer's leave may be taken by agreement between the employee and employer concerned. The section also provides that where carer's leave is postponed, curtailed or varied it may, subject to section 6, be taken at another time.

Part 3 which deals with employment rights is a standard provision in employment rights legislation generally. Section 13 is concerned with the employment position of the employee during carer's leave. The main provisions are as follows. An employee on carer's leave will be treated as if he or she had not been absent from his or her employment so that all of his or her employment rights, except the right to remuneration, annual leave, public holidays in excess of the initial period of 13 weeks of carer's leave, superannuation benefits, etc., will be unaffected during the leave. A period of probation or apprenticeship may be suspended during carer's leave if the employer considers that its continuance would not be consistent with the carer's leave. Periods of carer's leave are not to be reckonable as any other type of leave, for example, sick leave, annual leave, adoptive leave, maternity leave, parental leave or force majeure leave.

Section 14 provides entitlement to return to work on the expiration of a period of carer's leave. It also deals with arrangements for return to work where there has been a change of ownership of the enterprise concerned or the enterprise is temporarily closed on the date the employee expects to return to work from carer's leave.

Section 15 provides that where, on the resumption of work following a period of carer's leave, it is not reasonably practicable for the employer to permit the employee to return to the same work as he or she did prior to the leave, suitable alternative work on terms and conditions not less favourable to the employee than those applicable to his or her previous employment shall be provided by the employer.

Section 16 provides for the protection of employees from penalisation by employers for exercising or proposing to exercise their entitlement to carer's leave.

Under this section, penalisation includes dismissal, redundancy or any unfavourable change in the conditions of employment. An employee may seek relief against penalisation involving a dismissal under the Unfair Dismissals Acts, 1977-73.

Part 4 deals with the resolution of disputes. Sections 17 to 19 provide that in the event of certain disputes arising, relating to the employee's entitlement to carer's leave, a claim for redress may be made to a rights commissioner in the first instance with a right of appeal to the Employment Appeals Tribunal. An employee may refer a dispute to a rights commissioner that his or her employer has contravened a provision of the Bill in relation to the employee's right to carer's leave. An employee may seek redress against penalisation – other than in relation to dismissal – by an employer for exercising his or her rights under this legislation.

Disputes concerning an employer's opinion as to whether a person is a relevant person as defined, and-or whether full-time care and attention is being provided, must be referred for adjudication to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs only. The rights commissioner or the tribunal will be bound by the decision of a deciding officer or an appeals officer of that Department on these issues.

The Defence Forces have been excluded from Part 4 of the Bill because they have their own statutory redress mechanisms under the Defence Act, 1954.

Section 20 provides that a decision of a rights commissioner may be appealed to the Employment appeals tribunal within six weeks of the date of the decision. The Employment Appeals Tribunal shall issue a determination in writing affirming, varying or setting aside the decision of the rights commissioner. An extension of time to appeal of six weeks may be granted by the tribunal, if it considers it reasonable to do so, having regard to all the circumstances.

Section 21, in regard to redress, provides for matters which may be the subject of a decision of determination by the rights commissioner, or the tribunal, respectively. Among the matters which may be so decided, or determined, are the granting of the carer's leave of such length and at such times as may be specified, or an award of compensation of up 26 weeks' remuneration. This is similar to other employment rights legislation.

Section 22 provides that if a party fails to carry out the terms of the decision of a rights commissioner or the determination of the tribunal, the Circuit Court may, on the application of the aggrieved party or of the Minister, make an order directing that it be carried out. In making an order under this section, the Circuit Court may direct the employer to pay interest on the compensation in accordance with the provisions of the Courts Act, 1981.

Section 23 provides that the tribunal may refer a question of law arising in proceedings before it to the High Court and a party to proceedings before the tribunal may appeal from a determination of the tribunal, to the High Court, on a point of law.

Section 24 deals with the service of documents for the purposes of, or in relation to, proceedings under Part 4 of the Bill on the resolution of disputes. Section 20 provides that compensation due to an employee under this Bill shall be among the debts having priority in the distribution of assets of a company being wound up, or of a bankrupt or arranging debtor.

Sections 26 to 30 ensure that other relevant enactments take specific account of the introduction of this Carer's Leave Bill. Accordingly, the relevant Acts in relation to several matters such as redundancy payments, unfair dismissal, organisation of working time, national minimum wage and the protection of employees in the case of employers' insolvency are amended to ensure the protection of a person availing of carer's leave.

Section 31 was originally inserted at the request of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. However, that Department now proposes to introduce this section as an amendment of the Social Welfare Bill, 2001. Accordingly, this section will need to be removed from the Carer's Leave Bill.

Section 32 places an obligation on employers in relation to the keeping of the records and notices relating to carer's leave, and creates an offence in respect of the contravention of this obligation.

Section 33 confers power on the Minister to appoint persons to be inspectors for the purposes of the Act. The section confers certain powers on the inspectors, and regulates those powers in relation to investigating whether the provisions of the Act are being complied with. The section also creates an offence for, inter alia, giving false or misleading evidence to an inspector, or obstructing or impeding an inspector in the exercise of any of his or her powers under the section. Section 34 makes a general provision for the prosecution of offences under the Bill.

I have no doubt the House will be supportive of this innovative social legislation which allows people time off from their jobs at a difficult and sensitive time. As has already been said, the Bill honours the Government's commitment made under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness and budget 2000.

While the introduction of the Carer's Leave Bill is some three or four months behind the parallel carer's benefit scheme, I understand that, on the ground, some 218 applications for carer's benefit have been received by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. These cases are being dealt with in an expeditious manner by officials in that Department. I should also state that many of these cases have been helped by a compassionate and pragmatic approach on the part of employers which has enabled some of these applicants to leave their jobs, pending the enactment of this Carer's Leave Bill. While the Minister regrets this delay, I want to record that it was this process of harmonising as far as possible the two parallel schemes, namely, carer's benefit and carer's leave, which has delayed proceedings somewhat.

The Minister had over two years to do it.

However, I firmly believe that the excellent work done by officials of my Department and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs will result in effective, user-friendly procedures for everyone availing of either or both schemes.

The Carer's Leave Bill, 2000 was published on 14 December 2000 and the Christmas break has allowed the House the time to reflect on the provisions of the Bill which I have already outlined in detail. I believe that, in general, there is political consensus and good will on the thrust and intent of the Bill, I would therefore ask the House to proceed with haste in ensuring its early passage. This will give clear signals to employees, employers, and those persons requiring care of the support of this Government and this House for the less fortunate in our society.

I commend the Carer's Leave Bill, 2000 to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to say a few brief words on the Carer's Leave Bill. I noted the Minister of State, Deputy Eoin Ryan, arrived in the House out of breath. I suspect he was passed the baton in respect of this Bill at short notice. The manner in which we organise the business of the House is absurd, with the Department involved in a Second Stage debate here on the Carer's Leave Bill and in Committee Stage at a committee dealing with the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill. The Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, is obviously on duty elsewhere. It makes it extremely difficult for Opposition parties, which do not have the array of resources the Minister has at his disposal, to organise attendance at Second Stage debates here in the House while simultaneously being expected to deal with Committee Stage of another Bill elsewhere. In terms of organising the business of the House, this is something that should be examined.

Since there are members of staff from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in the House, let me take the opportunity to comment on a matter which I raised on the Adjournment last night. I do not intend to delay on it. I received a reply to that debate last night, and a written reply on the same matter yesterday, which were nothing short of a disgrace. This House has been previously reprimanded and admonished, rightly, by various fora outside this House for failing to give appropriate answers to Dáil questions. The type of reply I received is one which I will not, because it would bring this House into disrepute, send to constituents who raised the issue in question with me. I have raised the matter with the Government Chief Whip and with my party's Whip. I will pursue the matter further with the Tánaiste and the Secretary General of the Department. The reply I received was an appalling abuse of the House.

It would be churlish not to welcome in principle the contents of the Carer's Leave Bill. We are all acutely aware of the debate that rages annually in the run up to the budget and all through the year, fronted by the Carers' Association in the context of the vast array of people in the community who provide care of one type of another for relatives or non-relatives compared to those formally recognised by the State in monetary terms for the care they provide. While I cannot recall exactly the figures, it has been argued there are in excess of 100,000 carers, but of them only 30,000 or fewer are in receipt of some level of carer's allowance and while some are on the maximum rate, others, depending on means assessment, receive significantly less.

While this Bill is a step in the right direction, many would view it with a jaundiced eye in that while many may benefit from it, there are many who labour in vain and get no recognition from the State. We pat ourselves on the back repeatedly for having a Celtic tiger economy, our level of job creation, inflation rate and interest rates, but that begs the question, for what have we all this economic success if we do not use it to build a more equitable society that recognises the valiant efforts of people who carry out a duty that would cost the State significantly more, if it had to step into the breach and provide that level of care? The care those people provide fosters a sense of community and family commitment to which we repeatedly pay lip service but which, in many instances, regrettably we, as a House, collectively, fail to acknowledge in a meaningful fashion by virtue of financial payment.

It would be churlish not to welcome the Bill. To give 65 weeks' unpaid leave is a step in the right direction, but I agree with Deputy Broughan's point that its introduction is late in the context of carer's benefit, which was previously introduced.

Last night we debated an order to give effect to increased paid and unpaid maternity benefit. The point was made, which is also applicable to this debate, that in terms of the social interventions the State makes, notwithstanding our tiger economy, we are the bottom of the league table in many instances compared to our European Union partners. The introduction last night of that order was an issue on which the Department dragged its heels, and as a result approximately 10,000 mothers will be denied that payment this year. It appears we are dragged kicking and screaming in terms of making such provisions, as a result of which we make the beneficiaries of them campaign for so long and fight so hard that at the end of the day the provisions are not delivered to them with any dignity. I am mindful particularly of those who provide care for the most vulnerable. That situation is regrettable.

I have some queries concerning the combining of carer's benefit and carer's leave. Can one draw one benefit successive to the other, take carer's benefit and then take 65 weeks' unpaid carer's leave? Often those who provide care in the community do so for long and protracted periods. For many, particularly those who care for elderly relatives, it is not a 15 month, two year or three year job. Fortunately, with advances in medical science, people are living longer, but those in need of care require a level of care, intervention and supervision that demands a carer's time for far longer than envisaged under a period of combined carer's benefit and carer's leave. At a minimum, there should be an entitlement to draw both successively.

In the context of the overview of the operation of the carer's allowance, of which this is an extension of sorts, a justifiable point is the differentiation necessary between care provided by virtue of infirmity due to old age or accident, which, by its nature, would not be for as long a period as the type of care required and provided by people who care for the profoundly handicapped from the moment of birth to their death. The introduction and acknowledgement of that type of differentiation is long overdue. Payment of the carer's allowance should be available regardless of means of those who provide care around the clock for those who are profoundly handicapped. I know of numerous people in my constituency who feel extremely aggrieved about the shortcomings of the carer's allowance in that regard. They provide care for handicapped children, not only every waking hour but every hour of the day, and their concern is who will look after the needs of their handicapped child when they pass on.

In its review of the carer's allowance scheme, the Government included a recommendation that such differentiation should be acknowledged and payment of carer's allowance should be made to people in those circumstances, but the implementation of that recommendation has been long fingered. We are now talking about involving not only the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs but the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and that issue has been kicked to the Department of Health and Children for it is to carry out a pilot study on needs assessment. That proposal is contained in the review of the Government's programme of action, or whatever is the fancy title given to it. We need to comprehensively examine the operation of this scheme in its broadest context, acknowledge, in particular, the work done by those who provide care for the profoundly handicapped, 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, every year of their lives and recognise that by ensuring they are entitled to the carer's allowance.

I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Health and Children on needs assessment and I hope the reply I receive will at least answer the question I asked. Regrettably, the Minister for Health and Children was the person to whom the baton was passed last night to answer the matter I raised on the Adjournment. He bore the brunt of my dissatisfaction, but I have great faith in his response to that parliamentary question. At least I may get an answer to the question I asked.

I understand carer's leave is reckonable for the purposes of employment rights but not for superannuation purposes. Is that standard procedure or is it a break from the position when one takes unpaid leave for other reasons? If one takes carer's leave, can one make voluntary contributions towards one's superannuation for the period of that leave? That is an area that should be examined, as no one would want the taking of such leave to impact adversely on one's pension entitlements at a later stage.

I would be churlish not to welcome in broad terms what is contained in the Bill. It is a step in the right direction, but the vast majority of more than 100,000 carers, who get no formal recognition for the care they provide, will look upon this with a jaundiced eye. As a society we need to ask fundamental questions about what we are about. Do we see the creation of a successful economy as an end in itself or is this about using the fruits of a successful economy to build a more equitable society that recognises the difficulties people face in their daily lives?

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Ryan, for attending, though I am sorry Deputy Kitt was unable to stay. I thank the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment officials for the extensive briefing they gave me and Deputy Currie, which was very valuable.

I welcome the belated appearance of this Bill following a long gestation. This restrictive legislation will make it difficult for many carers to take time out to look after ill relatives and the Labour Party will seek to have the Bill amended significantly on Committee Stage. The delay in bringing the Bill forward is inexcusable and could have serious consequences for carers who have already successfully applied for the new carer's benefit. This morning Deputy Kitt expressed his regrets but it is not good enough that this legislation was not brought forward, as promised, in tandem with carer's benefit. This time last year the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Ahern, trumpeted the introduction of carer's benefit in the Social Welfare Bill, 2000. When he outlined Part III of the Bill, which introduced carer's benefit from the following October, it was clearly intended that the complementary legislation before us would be passed in tandem with the new carer's benefit legislation. It is typical of this lethargic and careless Government that the Carer's Leave Bill was not published for almost two months after carer's benefit had begun. A further two months have now elapsed and many more weeks will pass before this protective legislation becomes law. Is it any wonder that the take-up of carer's benefit is so low?

When I inquired about this during Question Time before Christmas only 11 people had been approved for carer's benefit out of approximately 75 applications, while the Minister told us this afternoon that there are now approximately 218 applications being processed. The Government has basked in self-congratulation for over a year because of the introduction of an important new benefit but it is still only in the process of legislating for this development one year later. That is characteristic of the Government's general treatment of carers. The Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition has always had a poor law approach to carers and its rigorous determination to uphold the means test for carer's allowance and to deny the vast majority of carers any kind of allowance is, unfortunately, a hallmark of the Government. After four years it does not give a damn about carers.

The Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs has refused to address the chief concerns of carers and every small, belated improvement has been dragged out of him and the Minister for Finance. The bitter criticism of these Ministers and the Government that I hear continuously from individual carers and their rep resentative bodies is a sad testament to the failure of this Administration to address the real needs of citizens shouldering grave family responsibilities. At a time of unprecedented national growth, the famous 100 billion euro economy, the Government's refusal to give real recognition to the most heroic group in our society, our carers, is perhaps the greatest scandal in Irish life today. Regrettably, the Government has failed to live up to even its modest promises to carers when in Opposition four years ago. The lackadaisical treatment of the introduction of carer's benefit and the Carer's Leave Bill are symptoms of the Government's lack of concern for the urgent plight of tens of thousands of carers. I will outline the situation at least 100,000 carers must live every day of every year, as Deputy Creed said.

Caring is a universal experience. We have all been cared for and we will perhaps be cared for again. All of us have some experience of caring but for a huge number of our fellow citizens, caring for a child or adult with a serious disability or serious illness is, as they rightly say, a 24/7 responsibility: a 24 hour a day job for seven days a week. Yet our Constitution and legislation contains no recognition of the valuable role of the carer.

A report to the Joint Committee on Women's Rights in May 1996 on a long-term support framework for female carers prepared by Mel Cousins stated that despite the rhetoric of support for community care, there had not been any financial commitment by the Government to make care in the community a reality, though there was widespread support in Ireland for the role of community care. That is obvious from the recent debate sparked by the Ombudsman's report on nursing home care. Clearly, family care or care at home is the most desirable setting for many elderly people and people with disabilities. However, there are no signs of the Government showing an interest in the development of a long-term policy on caring in the community. The long-standing demand for a White Paper on caring has been ignored by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs and his Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats colleagues voted down the Labour Party's proposed twenty-first amendment to the Constitution. This proposal, introduced by Deputy Quinn, guaranteed rights to housing, health, nutrition and an adequate standard of living. The vindication of the rights of our carers was one of the key reasons for the introduction of that constitutional amendment yet, unfortunately, before Christmas we had to watch as the Government parties almost casually voted down that very important initiative.

The Minister applauded himself today for the unique character of the carer's benefit legislation but many of our EU partners have passed legislation underpinning the proper provision of services to carers. The Carers (Recognition and Services) Act was passed in the UK in 1995 while Tom Pendry MP put forward the Carers and Dis abled Children Bill in December 1999. These measures provided for the rights of carers to proper needs assessment and services. Such constitutional amendment or legislation is urgently needed in Ireland and the Labour Party is determined to bring in legislation and a constitutional amendment at the earliest opportunity to clarify the fundamental rights of Irish carers once and for all, with particular reference to their health and basic financial needs.

Such an approach should also incorporate the carer's charter of Care Alliance Ireland. This admirable document lays down 16 rights which, if implemented, would involve the full recognition of carers' needs and their vital contribution to our society. At every turn the formation of policy on carers has been hindered by the lack of an adequate database, which also impinges on this Bill. Reports commissioned by the National Council for the Elderly a decade ago indicated that over 50,000 people provided care for somebody living in the same household, that between 16,000 and 100,000 people provided some care to persons in a different household and that over 70% of these carers were women. There is now a database on intellectual disability and a similar resource is being compiled for those with physical disabilities. I encounter this lack of clear numerical information on carers month in, month out in my parliamentary questions and it is an astonishing dereliction of duty on the part of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs and the Minister for Health and Children. Hence the Government's almost hysterical reaction to a recent survey showing that there are over 20,000 carers in the Western Health Board area alone.

The review of the carer's allowance published in 1998 estimated that the current number of full-time carers stands at approximately 50,000 people; that covers carers for older people as well as adults and children with disabilities. The much respected Carer's Association estimated in its October 2000 pre-budget submission that there were at least 120,000 family carers in Ireland and when the database is completed I am certain the higher estimate will be the true one.

In early December 2000 there were only 16,302 recipients of carer's allowance. It was then estimated that Budget 2001 increases and the income disregards for carers, £150 for single carers and £250 for a couple with a joint income, would result in up to 6,000 additional new carers qualifying for payment and 2,800 existing carers receiving an increased payment. Even with the passage of this Bill it is evident that at least half of the carers, in the narrowest definition of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, are still being excluded from any State financial support. Ultimately, that is the Government's legacy to carers.

The ongoing struggle of carers is visible throughout society and this uncaring Government gives scant regard to the fundamental reforms necessary to support these people. There was a major story in last weekend's Sunday World by Joanne McElgunn and Joe Barrett. The story was a heart rending account of the situation of a young returning emigrant family, Maria and Geoff Owen, who have returned to Portlaoise and who are caring for their profoundly handicapped son, William. The father had to give up his job and in desperation, because of the lack of financial support and a cost of caring allowance from the Government, they brought their child to offices of the Midland Health Board in Portlaoise. This is a terrible indictment but it is one of thousands of cases Deputies could bring to the attention of the Minister regarding the treatment of carers.

Carers' health is often seriously damaged as they struggle to care for very ill relatives. Their fundamental right to a healthy lifestyle is often ignored. The Government has failed to address the heartfelt need of carers for adequate funding of respite care and time for themselves. The Minister, Deputy Ahern, is still nowhere near realising the long-standing Labour Party aim of a £1,000 per annum respite grant. The recent budget raised the respite grant by a miserable £100 to £400 per annum. However, problems remain for carers, including the lack of respite places, both day care and longer term care, a lack of transport, especially in rural areas, and the failure to improve the nursing home subvention levels, which still stand at the figure set by the former Minister, Deputy Howlin, under the partnership Government eight years ago.

Carers are deeply resentful of the means test for the carer's allowance and the lack of a cost of caring allowance. The 1996 report, A Long-Term Support Framework for Female Carers, to which I referred, argued that the qualification conditions for the carer's allowance should be removed over time with the long-term aim of awarding the allowance to the carers of all persons requiring full-time care. I and the Labour Party concur with this view. It is time to consign the rotten 19th century means test for carers allowance to the dustbin of history. The restrictive nature of the qualifying conditions for the carer's allowance and the restrictions implicit in the Carer's Leave Bill will ensure that vast numbers of carers will continue to receive no financial support. As the Minister is aware, much of the family income of carers is consumed by the purchase of necessary accessories and supplements for people with disabilities. Hence, the provision of a cost of caring allowance of at least £50 a week or a much improved continual care allowance should be provided.

The recent expansion of the free schemes to carers is welcome as is the principle of carers benefit and leave. I pay tribute to two of my Labour Party colleagues who worked hard to develop the concept of an insurance based carer's benefit. I am aware that Deputy De Rossa, when he was the Minister for Social Welfare, pushed forward this initiative and sought to move rapidly towards the introduction of carer's benefit. Sadly, it has taken almost four years to realise his ambition. Deputy Moynihan-Cronin, as the Labour Party spokesperson on social, community and family affairs, strongly advocated the idea of carer's benefit and an insurance based benefit during the early years of this Dáil. However, my colleagues conceived a much broader and less restrictive process of protection for carers leave than is advocated in the Bill.

The many reservations of my party about the current restrictive shape of the Carer's Leave Bill are founded on its patent lack of sympathy for the serious dilemmas faced by workers when a relative becomes seriously ill or suddenly deteriorates and needs full-time care in the home. There is also the dilemma faced by many workers with a caring spouse who is denied the carer's allowance and who cares full-time for a severely disabled child or other relative. To such workers, the Bill as it stands is unduly restrictive and lacking in sympathy for the difficult circumstances in which caring relatives and friends may find themselves when they seek to provide full-time care.

In the definitions at the beginning of the Bill, there appears to be an unnecessary change in comparison to parental leave and employment equality legislation. There is a specific reference to members of the Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces in the latter legislation, but it is unclear if these categories of workers are covered by the Carer's Leave Bill. Perhaps the phrase "a person holding office under or in the service of the State" might be extended to include the Garda and the Defence Forces. The Minister pointed out that the Defence Forces are excluded from Part 4 because they have their own mechanisms under the 1954 Act.

Section 3(5) states:

The Minister may, after consultation with any other Minister of the Government who, in the opinion of the Minister, might be concerned with the matter, by regulations exempt from the application of a specified provision or provisions of this Act persons employed in any specified class or classes of activity.

This is an extraordinary and wide ranging power to bestow on any Minister to effectively categorise a broad group of almost certainly public sector workers in this way. The House is often rightly concerned with the enormous range of power conferred on the Executive to act by regulation. The rest of section 3 appears par for the course with regard to ministerial ability to act by way of regulation under most legislation. Subsection (5) appears to be of a different order and perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, in his reply could indicate the persons employed in any specified class or classes of activity who might be disbarred from the protection of the Bill following consultations with some other Minister. Perhaps the best solution in the interest of the protection of workers giving care is to delete the subsection on Committee Stage.

Section 6 contains a number of contentious provisions which my party would like amended. The requirement in subsection (1) of 12 months continuous employment by an employee from the employer to whom the application for carer's leave is made appears unduly long and out of line with the Social Welfare Act, 2000, which introduced carer's benefit and which is facilitated by the Carer's Leave Bill. As the Minister said earlier, the benefit and carer's leave should operate in tandem. Why is there a difference between the provision for carer's benefit in the social welfare legislation and the provision in the Bill where a worker needs to take carer's leave?

Section 10 of the Social Welfare Act, 2000, states that benefits shall be paid to a carer who has engaged in remunerative full-time employment as an employed contributor for the three month period immediately prior to the first day in respect of which a claim for carer's benefit is made. In that case, the time span is three months. Why is there a discrepancy between the Bill and the legislation introduced by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs? The qualification work period of three months for carer's benefit should be the same under the Carer's Leave Bill for the employer to whom the application for carer's leave is made. Instead of working in tandem, the two Departments appear to be at loggerheads.

The Parental Leave Act, 1998, contains a 12 month continual service requirement. However, the Act also stipulates that where an employee has not completed one year's continuous employment with an employer, but has completed at least three months of such employment, that employee is entitled to parental leave for a period of one week for each month of continuous employment completed with the employer concerned. Why could there not be a similar provision in the Carer's Leave Bill, thus ensuring that an employee with less than 12 months' continuous employment with the employer concerned would also qualify for a proportion of carer's leave? The Labour Party intends to table amendments in that regard.

The Labour Party made strenuous objections to the initial 52 week provision for carer's benefit in the 2000 budget. In strong support of the Carers Association, we demanded that the period be greatly extended in the Social Welfare Bill, 2000. We were grateful to the Minister, Deputy Ahern, when he gave a slight extension to the period of carers benefit in the Social Welfare Bill, but the 65 week period still appears arbitrarily short when one considers the daily and enormous caring task faced by many workers in their family lives. Carers have made a cogent case for three year carer's leave and there is a precedent in the public service for, albeit unpaid, lengthy career breaks. The caring needs of an elderly parent may often be acute for lengthier periods than 65 weeks as experienced carers have repeatedly demonstrated. I ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs to examine the extension of this provision to at least 18 months.

I welcome the application in the Bill of the ten hours a week rule for worker training, which applies to carer's benefit and carer's allowance. However, despite the rationale for the introduction of carer's leave, including a desire to spread the caring function more widely in the community, the Bill places a prohibition on any efforts to share the role of caring between a number of workers who might be siblings, for example, caring for two aged and infirm parents. Once again, the Minister has flown in the face of the reality of many people's lives where a number of people might prefer to work part-time and care for a person with a disability. An obvious solution for many families is prevented and two employees working for different employers could not both share the caring role for their parent while remaining in the work force on a part-time basis. One of the key elements of the carer's charter is to seek the ongoing involvement of all members of a family in discharging a duty of care to parents and siblings, and therefore I ask the Minister to look again at these provisions of section 6 and allow for part-time care by a number of carers.

I welcome the supplementary provisions to section 6, where the proposed legislation allows for the application of a second period of carer's leave for a second person needing care up to a total leave period of 130 weeks, contained in section 7. This provision echoes the experience of many people in relation to the care of two elderly parents, where the illness of one is often a prelude to medical problems for both, especially where one parent has cared for the other through difficult times.

The provision in section 8 allowing an employer to refuse, without reason, to permit an employee to take a period of carer's leave which is less than 13 weeks' duration is extraordinary in its scope. Presumably the employee would already have secured a decision from a deciding officer under the Social Welfare Act, 1993, granting him or her carer's benefit, yet under subsection (2) an employee, whose elderly parent or child requires only six or seven weeks' full-time care and attention, may be prevented by the employer from taking leave to provide that care and of course the employer need not give any reason. In practice, the provisions of section 8 will operate against employees who must avail of this leave to care for an extremely ill parent, spouse or child. In circumstances which families face every day, this subsection places an obstacle in the way of employees who must try to meet urgent and serious caring needs. At the very least, a refusal by an employer to allow an employee to take a period of carer's leave which is less than 13 weeks' duration should be the basis for a referral by the employee of the issue to a rights commissioner. Given the seven day, 24 hour reality of the lives of many carers, the provision in section 8(3) of a prohibition of another period of carer's leave until a period of six weeks has elapsed seems unduly restrictive. All carers are familiar with the good days, bad days quality of the lives of people with serious illness and the familiarity of sudden relapses. Given that, perhaps the Minister would agree to an amendment allowing for exceptional circumstances to be allowed where fewer than six weeks has elapsed.

I referred above to, and briefly welcomed, section 7 which recognised the family circumstances, again so familiar to many, where two elderly parents often need full-time care, either contemporaneously or in swift succession, yet section 8(4) seems to negate the caring effects of employees in the latter circumstances. This subsection insists that where an employee has completed a full period of carer's leave in respect of one person, he or she is not permitted to commence carer's leave in respect of another relevant person until a period of 12 months has passed since the termination of the first period of carer's leave. Therefore, in cases where the death of one elderly parent is quickly followed by serious illness of the second parent, a carer who has taken leave to care for the first parent may be prevented from caring during the final illness of the second parent because of the restriction in this subsection. Once more, the Minister should consider the substitution of this provision by a subsection allowing a second period of caring within a relatively short time where family circumstances require it.

Section 9(1) obliges an employee to give at least six weeks' notice before a proposed commencement of carer's leave. While the Parental Leave Act, 1998, contains a similar provision, this length of notice seems unduly long given the kind of caring emergencies which might arise. The Labour Party would like to see this provision reduced to four weeks, as in the Maternity Protection Act, 1994.

Section 9(4) appears to give carte blanche to an employer to use his or her discretion to decide whether carer's leave is actually carer's leave, where for understandable reasons the employee has not complied with all the terms of the notice. It is our view that an employee's rights should not be placed at the discretion of the employer under the Bill and should be vindicated by reference to a rights commissioner at this subsection, and we will return to that by way of amendment.

Section 13, which deals with a central issue of protection of the employment rights of employees and carer's leave, differs significantly with similar provisions of the Parental Leave Act.

On section 14, since the Carer's Leave Bill excludes annual leave and public holidays from the employee's rights during carer's leave, as another Deputy stated, why should a carer be treated less favourably in this regard? This section should be amended to include annual leave and public holidays in order that there is equality between both types of carer covered by the Parental Leave Act and by the Bill.

Section 18 is an important provision which allows reference by the employer to the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs of various aspects of the caring role of an employee while on carer's leave. This section reiterates the ongoing close relationship of the administration of carer's benefit and carer's leave and the necessity for close collaboration between the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to ensure the success of the new scheme.

In the appeals procedure to the Employment Appeals Tribunal under section 20, the six weeks period for lodging an appeal should be reduced to "within four weeks". This would be consistent with the timescale within which an appeal may be lodged at a similar point under the Parental Leave and Maternity Acts. I note the Minister stated this morning that he is removing section 31, which now will be handled by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs.

I welcome sections 28 to 30, inclusive, which will add the Bill to the provisions of such important legislation as the Organisation of Working Time Act, the National Minimum Wage Act and the Protection of Employees Act. When the Protection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Bill, 2000, is being passed through the Oireachtas shortly, it is important that the Bill, on enactment, be included in the list of relevant legislation covered in the other new employees' rights legislation.

It is crucial that there should be provision in the Bill for a review of its operation, perhaps within two or three years after it becomes law. This would be consistent with the provisions of the Parental Leave Act, 1998, and should involve in a similar way representatives of employers and employees affected by the operation of the new carer's leave law.

The introduction of the Carer's Leave Bill fulfils an important policy of the Labour Party to address the grave difficulties of carers in society but, as you have heard, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Labour Party and, indeed, the labour movement have serious problems with the restricted Bill. The Bill needs major amendment before it will even nearly meet the profound needs of workers who wish to spend even a short period as carers.

I want to make a few brief final comments about the Bill and about carers generally. The Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, spoke at length about people taking carer's leave at their own expense, but is this realistic? One must ask what world does he inhabit? Obviously it is true that failure to qualify for carer's benefit does not necessarily mean that an employee cannot avail of the leave, but surely the Government should be aiming at providing proper financial support to working carers to enable them to take time out. In that regard, in the recently published Social Welfare Bill, 2001, the carer's benefit will rise to £96.50 a week, an increase from last year's £88.50. Of course this £88.50 was drawn, as I have said, by fewer than a dozen people during 2000. The Government lived off the publicity of introducing carer's benefit for a whole year without actually introducing it, which is an extraordinary public relations achievement. There is no adult dependant allowance with this benefit, and the child dependant allowance is still only £13.20. My party still believes that benefits such as this should be aiming at 34%, as the lowest benchmark, of average industrial wages. Even £96.50 is still a very modest sum on which to expect a worker to live for 65 weeks, 13 weeks or whatever the period would be. It is an extraordinarily small sum of money and one, in the context of general social welfare provision, to which we should return.

To return to the issue I raised at the outset, there has been an unpardonable delay of a year in the introduction of the Carer's Leave Bill. The Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, and the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, had time to prepare it, bring it before us and have it enacted and in place before 26 October, when carer's benefit started. We knew, since the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy's, budget in December 1999, that the carer's benefit would come into effect on 26 October and therefore they had a year to prepare but they did not do so. Incidentally, it does not instil confidence that on 1 January 2002 the changeover to the payment of social welfare in euros will be achieved and raises fears that many people will not receive the increases due. It is sad that a significant group of people, who have applied and whose applications have been processed, are not covered by the protection afforded by this legislation and I ask the Minister to look at this.

I warmly welcome the principle of carer's leave in the same way I welcomed the introduction of carer's benefit. I hope it is a route by which many hard-pressed carers will be able to take time out from work to care for a much loved relative or friend and that it will be taken up by several thousand carers. In essence it is just one of a number of significant measures which the Government should be taking to vindicate carers' rights. In particular, there is a need for fundamental legislation or legislation amending the Constitution guaranteeing these rights and, above all, to abolish the hated means test for the carer's allowance. With those caveats, I thank the Minister of State and welcome the Bill.

I welcome the Bill and thank Deputy Broughan for some insights into what has and has not been done and I intend to address some of those issues in my speech.

The main purpose of the Bill is to provide for a new entitlement for employees to avail of temporary unpaid carer's leave to enable them to care personally for persons who require full-time care and attention. In that respect, it is a very important Bill. It fulfils the Government's commitment in the budget of 2000 and in the Pro gramme for Prosperity and Fairness of providing a legislative framework to give effect to the carer's benefit payment and a parallel right to carer's leave.

Carers had for years gone unrecognised and undervalued in society, if they were valued at all. That was wrong. Carers have played and continue to play an essential role in many homes throughout Ireland, and I am glad that what small recognition they have gained has been attained under the current Government. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, for the Bill and also the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, for the large range of measures to which he has added in the recent budgets and Social Welfare Acts. Carers deserve to be rewarded for their dedication and devotion to those in need and this should not be just in words of praise but in terms of real financial recognition without means testing. It is not means but PRSI contributions which are the basis of this benefit.

This aspiration towards recognition is pursued by the Government not only in the action taken in the Bill but on an ongoing basis since we came into office. Fianna Fáil recognises the enormous contribution carers make to the lives of others through their sacrifices and devotion to the needs of those who are less fortunate. These sacrifices involve significant personal costs, be they physical, financial or psychological. Historically, a mother, daughter, daughter in law or some family member generally rallied to the cause of caring for the elderly relative who as an invalid, the disabled child or whoever needed care. They often did this at the expense of their own careers but they did this task, by and large, out of love for the person concerned and without seeking favour. As the Minister of State said, the family rallied to the call.

Things have changed and moved on in many ways and, while this does not change the basic need of those who are cared for, it creates a need for a new sense of balance between home and work. I hope the Bill will assist in the continuing review of how to marry the changing needs of the workplace with the ever growing demands of family life. I hope that family friendly workplace arrangements allow us to address the need to reconcile work and family life to the mutual benefit of workers and employers.

Looking at examples of carers in my area, they are people who have tended for years to the every need of a relative or friend who, at times, through one form of illness or another, has not been the easiest of patients. I especially think of carers who are now ageing and who do not have the same physical strength for the job or the stamina for the length of day their charges present to them. These people live away from bus routes, have no car and the charge may not have been to the local town for years because no one else in that remote area is able to care for him or her to give the carer that well deserved break.

From my brief experience as a politician having met people in various situations who have dependent family members and coming, as I do, from an immediate family with no such difficulties, I know support for those who cannot help themselves and for those who care for them is extremely important. Thus the action the programme for Government promised, to increase the real value of the carer's allowance and that more carers would qualify for the allowance, was essential. The fact that both these objectives have been delivered shows that the Government, contrary to what Deputy Broughan said, has not just talked the talk. It has continued to raise the standards it wished to attain and has added extra and very important supports each year.

It is important to outline what has been done since we came into office. Perhaps someone from the Opposition can defend the record of the rainbow Government when it was in power when Deputy Quinn held the purse strings tightly. In 1998 there were significant additional budget increases for carers over 66 years of age and a free travel pass for everyone on a carer's allowance was introduced. In 1999, creditable contributions were awarded to eligible carers, the back to work scheme was extended to carers who ceased caring responsibilities and the annual payment of £200 towards respite care was introduced. Deputy Broughan described it as miserly and derisory but I did not see it in place when he and his party had an opportunity to do something which he said they were eager to do at the time. Other measures included the extension of the carer's allowance to carers of people between 16 and 65 and to those caring for recipients of domiciliary care allowance, the extension of free telephone rental allowance to carers, the application of a £75 means disregard to the income of a single carer and £150 to the joint income of a married carer, the relaxation of the residency rule and the relaxation of the full-time care and attention rule to allow carers in receipt of carer's allowance to take up paid employment for up to ten hours per week.

In 2000 carers receiving the carer's allowance no longer had to satisfy the 13 paid contributions rule when claiming disability benefit, the annual respite grant was raised by £100 to £300 – when did that happen before – the back to education allowance scheme was extended to carers who ceased caring responsibilities, the free electricity and free television licence schemes were extended to all carers in receipt of the carer's allowance, which ensured carers were in receipt of all free schemes, and the carer's benefit scheme was introduced which necessitated the legislation under discussion.

Not only has the Minister worked hard in Cabinet to lay the foundations on which to attain these improvements, he has made sure those entitled to support are fully aware of their rights, whether financial, employment or educational support measures, through the information booklet, Carer's Allowance – Keeping You Informed, which his Department issued to more than 16,000 people in 2000. This pro-active approach to getting information to those entitled to assistance is refreshing and gives a true sense of the partnership between the Department and those it serves. For too long people have come to me having only realised when a child is ten or 12 that they were entitled to domiciliary care allowance. No one told them. No one caring for a child or adult should have to figure out his or her entitlements. They should be made known to them. In that respect, the Minister deserves our vote of confidence and congratulations for his initiatives which he continues to expand.

In this year's budget there is a significant relaxation of the income disregard which applies to the means test for the carer's allowance which increases the number eligible by about 5,000 apart from current recipients. There is a £10 increase for carers over 66 and an £8 a week increase for those aged under 66. According to Deputy Broughan and the Labour Party, this is a terribly small amount, but I remember in my first year in the Dáil five years ago when we were in Opposition the children's allowance being increased by £1 a month or 25p a week, which would not even have bought a bar of chocolate at the time. In saying a £10 increase is miserly, one is measured by what one does when one has the strength to do something. This Government is delivering.

The weekly increases will come into effect four weeks earlier than in previous years, that is, April. The income disregard for means assessment for the carer's allowance scheme is increased to £125 and £250. The respite care payment is increased to £400 per annum. This is a significant amount of money for people and, in the short time since the Minister introduced the scheme, it has been important to people. I will not let the Labour Party deride the value of this scheme introduced by the Minister. The sum of £400 per annum with a double payment for a person caring for more than one person is significant and further underlines that the Government has not ended its commitment to improving the lot of both carers and those cared for.

In cold monetary terms, carers save the country many millions of pounds annually in that the numbers entering nursing homes or other institutions are only a fraction of what they could be. In human terms, the quality of life of those being cared for is enhanced by the fact that they can remain at the location with which they are most familiar among those for whom they care most. Each one of us knows of elderly people who, for one reason or another, were removed from their own environment to an institution and who, in every case, went downhill immediately afterwards and did not live as long as they would have if they had been left in their own environment. Carers ensure elderly persons live out their lives to their full potential in their own environment. This simply cannot be measured in monetary terms. I am not being patronising in saying that those being cared for are not always a burden in a home, they give much to those caring for them in day-to-day experiences.

Given that the Government has listened to and included carers who had been deprived of the allowance because they lived close – perhaps next door – to the person being cared for as well as those working part time or in education through the relaxation of the full-time rules, it is only logical that it should introduce a scheme to release someone in full-time employment for up to 65 weeks to gain, while caring for someone in need of care, a benefit of £96.50 – this compares with a figure of £88.50 last year – not an insignificant rise for what is a new scheme, although I accept that it may be lower than what the person concerned may be earning in the workplace.

As the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, said, the Bill is a further recognition of the important role played by carers in society. We must continue to provide support and practical assistance for them. This legislation will make it possible for workers to make the temporary choice of becoming a carer without loss of employment. As the Minister of State said, it is the first of its kind in Europe.

It is difficult to strike a balance – Deputy Broughan referred to some of the problems being encountered – between the needs of employers and those of employees. The Bill tries to strike that balance. It is only when the Bill is in operation that we will be able to evaluate how successful it has been. I assume the section under which an employer will be allowed to refuse an employee leave where the period of leave sought is less than 13 weeks is designed to maintain a certain level of continuity for the employer. I understand this was negotiated and decided between the ICTU and IBEC and is considered reasonable. I assume also that not all employers will exercise this right if it is decided that the 65 weeks can be taken in separate units. In the case of someone caring for a terminally ill person, should the period extend beyond 65 weeks, surely it can be agreed between the employer and employee that a level of discretion will be shown should the same discretion be shown by the Department.

Under section 17 disputes relating to an employee's employment rights – for example, length of continuous service, the right to return to work and redundancy payments – will be dealt with by a rights commissioner in the first instance and on appeal by the Employment Appeals Tribunal, as appropriate. This is both welcome and important. Deputy Broughan argued that the redress mechanism should be similar to that outlined in the Maternity Leave Act, 1994, and the Adoptive Leave Act, 1995. The Minister of State has already answered that question, he has indicated that they will be in line.

Before leave can be taken, an employee must be in the constant employment of an employer for 12 months. I am aware of many cases, however, where the only choice people had was to give up work completely as the alternative was institutionalisation of the loved one being cared. It is unfortunate that they will not benefit under the Bill. I ask the Minister of State to look at this point, although I accept that the Bill will not apply retrospectively.

While carers deserve this scheme, they have other needs. They need the backup and support of the health services. The Government has focused on the elderly and the disabled in the provision of facilities and resources with the shortest possible waiting time. A Minister of State with responsibility for older people is an important resource and assists in the development of a coherent national strategy for the development of services for older people who will account for a large percentage of those covered by this benefit.

I understand the strategy is at an advanced stage and will cover such issues as specialist-led services in the form of assessment and rehabilitation units and day hospitals; extended care and community nursing units, including nursing and convalescent care, respite care and palliative care; community based services and supports in the form of day care centres and care in the home through care teams and home helps and services for the elderly mentally infirm. These services have been made much more accessible in recent budgets, through the announcement of an increase in pensions, but, more significantly, the introduction of free medical cards for those over the age of 70 years. This will ensure those who in the past would have thought twice about going to a doctor due to the cost implications will now feel more confident about the entire process. This is an excellent development not only from the point of view of the patient, but from the point of view of the carer who in the past has battled to have their charge look for more assistance from the medical profession.

I pay tribute to the many excellent staff within the medical profession, in particular within the North Western Health Board, for tending to the many small details which can improve the quality of life of individuals in a substantial manner. Many people in my constitutency are working hard in a voluntary capacity in the provision of voluntary housing, the development of high dependency units, respite care and in the exertion of pressure to have nursing homes, day hospitals and other support units provided. Many others are involved in the James Connolly Hospital summer house and schools such as St. Nicholas and Scoil Íosagáin special schools in Buncrana and Carndonagh community school. Many people are doing a lot of work to try to integrate those who may in the past have been left to be cared for at home. That is as it should be. What is happening in relation to the Alzheimer's unit in Carndonagh? The project seems to be on hold.

Under the Government home help pay has improved while the number of hours provided for has increased. Given the age profile of the population, this is a resource that deserves, merits and needs constant upgrading. Home helps provide a service for a huge number of people that cannot easily be assessed in monetary terms. Enough hours can never be provided for.

I feel strongly about the case of the Independent Living Association. Fianna Fáil aims to promote and facilitate independent living and to enhance the quality of life of those with physical and sensory disabilities. Through works already commenced, support is available for the development of a comprehensive range of flexible community services to meet the needs of people with disabilities, their families and carers. I look forward to the day when a greater number of personal assistants will be available. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, to continue various initiatives under FÁS to help the people concerned achieve their objective, that is, to participate fully in life, not an unrealistic dream for anyone to have.

The quality of life of people with a physical or intellectual disability is greatly enhanced by the hard work and devotion of their carers. Their input helps many of our citizens to reach their potential and who would find life intolerable without their support. It is important that the Government continues to reward and recognise the work of carers who are prepared to give of themselves physically, financially and psychologically, a cost which their role exacts. I would like to see far greater access to carer's allowance. This recognition must always be all-encompassing through resourcing not only the carer and the person being cared for in the home, but continually increasing the available facilities for respite care, holiday opportunities, support and guidance services.

I commend the Bill, the general gist of which is very appropriate and worthy.

I welcome the Bill in principle. As previous speakers said, there must be changes. I have great time for Deputy Keaveney and I was interested in her contribution but I do not agree that carers have been looked after. They have been let down by all Governments. Carers do a wonderful job but they are not respected by the State or the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and are not given the help they need.

If the husband or wife of a working couple decides to give up work to become a full-time carer he or she will be means tested. If they give up work, they can take time off but at their own expense. People are angry about the means test because it is wrong. There should some recognition for the work these people do even if they are above the earnings threshold. The first £50, £60 or £70 should be tax exempt. They save the State more than £300 per week because their work means that people are not looked after in institutions. The taxpayer is being saved a fortune.

Deputy Keaveney asked what previous Governments had done. We must be honest and fair. This is the first Government since the found ation of the State that has had money and the opportunity to do something for carers. Previous Governments of various hues had to make choices. That is not the case now because the money is available. We never had as much money and the question is where to spend it. The Government's policy is to look after the rich. The rich are getting richer, middle income earners are squeezed and the poor are getting poorer. I do not agree with the flowery speeches of programme managers.

I am not a programme manager. The previous Fine Gael-led Government increased the old age pension by £1.80 per week.

The Minister of State should display some manners. He will have his opportunity. We have not heard much from him lately because he is doing too much travelling around the country. It is in this House that we want to hear from him.

I am doing too well.

The Government does not like the truth because it hurts. Why did carers and the people they look after have to campaign for their rights outside the House before the budget? Previous speakers outlined what the Government had done. It has provided a measly £10 per week while inflation has been running at 7%. The Minister of State will also have an answer for that. The Government gives an increase to carers with one hand and takes it off them with the other because the economy has been allowed to run off the beam.

The point was made about balance between employers and employees. When we bring legislation through the House, we refer to companies which employ 30, 40 and in some cases 100 or 150 people. From time to time I am approached by small employers, who may only have one or two people working for them. The same rules and regulations affect them. It is not easy to replace employees on a short-term basis in urban or rural Ireland.

If one is releasing an employee for 12, 13 or 14 weeks, it is difficult to find replacements. It is fine in large companies or in the Minister's office where he has programme managers, assistant programme managers and various secretaries and assistant secretaries. However, if an employer has two people working for him and one decides to leave, it is difficult to replace that person and the business is put in jeopardy. I would like the Minister to respond to that point.

The Minister of State might bring the Minister's attention to a case I came across recently which involved two elderly people in north Mayo and their daughter and related to the free schemes. There are more than 20,000 carers in the Western Health Board area. The daughter of the couple had to leave the Minister of State's constituency – she may even be a supporter of his – to look after them in Mayo. Her husband had died and she was living alone. She must pay rent for her house to the local authority. If she was a carer living five or six miles from her parents she would have been able to avail of the free schemes but because she comes from another county and, therefore, another jurisdiction, she must pay rent for and pay a man to put a fire on and keep an eye on her house. She has made a sacrifice and moved to the west to look after her mother and father, who are seriously ill. She does not qualify for the free schemes in regard to her own home. That should be dealt with.

The woman is worse off financially because she must pay a neighbour to look after her house. She was debarred from availing of the free schemes because she was not living in her own home. She could not live in the Minister of State's constituency and in north Mayo at the same time but she could not give up her house because when her parents die she intends to return to her home. Her son is married in the area and she will return there to live. The woman should be able to avail of the free schemes. She will not need to do so forever but she should be assisted. She still has to pay bills as she has kept her ESB connection and she is still paying rent and heating bills. She is a carer and is saving the taxpayer a great deal of money. Something should be done for her.

I disagree with the Minister's comment that people's quality of life had improved because of the booming economy and they had more disposable income. People's quality of life has never been as bad because in the past, particularly in rural Ireland, when sons and daughters got married they moved into the family home and one of them would look after elderly relatives. Couples must battle to make a living to pay their mortgages and both partners must work. it is impossible for one or the other to leave work to care for older people because of the price of property and other pressures. I come across this on a daily basis in my clinics. People are concerned about home help because they do not know whether the health board will provide home helps. It is becoming more difficult to recruit home helps because family members are prevented from taking up the position and most young people leave rural Ireland.

On Friday night next, John Grant will receive the Mayo Person of the Year award in Dublin. He set up the Alzheimer's unit in Claremorris and plans to set up other units throughout the county. He had foresight, vision and an understanding of carers because the biggest factor affecting carers is that they get no respite. They get no assistance. When a family member takes up the responsibility of looking after a young or old person in need of full-time care everybody, including the State, public representatives and the health boards, forgets about them. Once the person is being looked after, the carer is left to do the job. The one factor that gets them down and sickens them is that there is no help available to them. They feel isolated and trapped with no escape.

I compliment John Grant who recognised this problem and organised the respite units. The units give full-time carers the opportunity of taking a week, a few days or a few weekends off. It is wonderful. I wish him and his organisation well. John Flannery is chairman of the three counties organisation. They broke away a number of years ago because they felt the national organisation was not giving them the same amount of funding and that the State was not assisting them. They believed there were not enough nursing homes and the health boards did not have the vision to see the problem. I compliment both John Flannery and John Grant for putting this on a full-time basis and providing relief for carers. There is a massive demand for it and there is a waiting list for people who are just trying to get a break.

People want to look after their families. I agree with Deputy Keaveney that old people who have lived all their lives in their own homes and who are moved from that environment into a hospital, which might be up to 30 miles away, tend to last only a short while before dying. They just fade away. The vast majority of people want to die at home, if possible and if carers or family members are available to take care of them.

I hope this or the next Government will consider the position of carers. The money spent on them is well spent. The means test thresholds should be trebled. There should be recognition of the work done by carers, regardless of whether their spouses have good jobs, even if it is only as little as £50 or £60 per week. I hope the Government will have the courage to do that.

I wish to thank the more than 100,000 carers in this country. They are giving wonderful service to the State and saving it a fortune. We do not have sufficient public institutions for people in need of full-time care. It would cost a fortune if every one of them had to be put into public homes. The carers deserve our thanks for the wonderful job they do. Indeed, other family members often forget to thank the family member who is caring at home. Sometimes they are even critical of them and forget the pressures they are under. It is not easy to look after an old or sick person. Some of them can be very nice but some can be difficult which is natural given their circumstances and the fact they are sick and probably frustrated. Sometimes we do not give carers the thanks and the understanding they deserve.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Office of the Ombudsman for unearthing one of our greatest scandals. I also compliment the journalists who picked up the story from the Ombudsman's report. The Ombudsman's report on nursing homes revealed how the health boards behaved towards relatives and family members with regard to subventions. In the first place, the amount of subvention was a scandal. I note it is due to be increased in the near future and I welcome that. That issue must be dealt with because not enough money is provided in subvention, particularly in view of the price of nursing homes at present. The health boards look at this in the context of needs and the subvention is evaluated according to what type of care is required.

The behaviour of the health boards a number of years ago was outrageous. I got a letter today from a person in America who had read in the newspapers about the subventions. This person asked me to try to get back the money he had to send from America. These were family members who had to leave the State when there was no economic boom. They went abroad and worked to send home money to keep their parents in nursing homes in this State. The State took money illegally from these people. I am glad the Minister will ensure that whatever money was taken from people in those circumstances will be returned quickly to them. The least the health boards and others who were responsible for this scandal should get is a rap across the knuckles.

I agree with the comments made by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health and Children in a recent interview in a Sunday newspaper. They felt the Civil Service, in some cases, is getting out of hand. There are some wonderful civil servants, caring people in the health service who deal compassionately and well with old people. Others, however, who think they are protected by their work for the health boards, councils and so forth believe they can treat people like dirt. That should not be allowed. There should be some protection against these people. The public does not deserve to be treated that way.

If mistakes are made and people are treated wrongly, there should be a means to make complaints and when the complaints are made, the people concerned should not be protected by the health boards, councils and other staff. If officials are not doing their job, are not nice with the public or are doing something wrong, they should be dealt with and the people who work with them should not be afraid to express that view to their superiors.

I welcome the Bill. It will help those in full-time employment who wish to give full-time care to their father or mother to do just that. However, somebody who leaves full-time employment to go onto the carer's allowance of £88.50 or the new level of £96 will experience a change in their standard of living. I suppose it will be worth it for the satisfaction they will get as a result of being with their loved ones and caring for them in their hour of need. I compliment them for doing that.

I hope the legislation works. If there are problems with the Bill and amendments are tabled on Committee Stage, I hope the Minister will take accept them. We are here to give the best possible help and support to carers. They deserve our help and something should be done for them now when there is real money available.

There are more than 100,000 carers in the country and in excess of 20,000 of them are in the Western Health Board region. The elderly population is a big problem in rural Ireland. It is a problem that will grow because there will be many more older people who will need care. People are living longer, which is good, and they should be allowed to live comfortably in their last years. These are the people who built this economy. We will be the next generation of older people and we will be judged by what we did for our elderly and what we should have done for them. If we do not look after them, how can we expect the upcoming generation to look after us?

It is important that carers are given whatever help and assistance they need. I compliment Mr. Collins of the National Carers Organisation who has been on this case for many years. He knows the frustration being experienced by carers and I agree with them. I hope this Bill will meet the needs and demands in that area and that it will help people in employment who are anxious to look after their elderly relatives.

Fianna Fáil and the Government need not get carried away. I will know they are committed to carers when real money is provided for them. The Government has that money. When we see proper support and help for carers, I will accept that the Government is serious about the elderly, the sick and those who need full-time care.

I wish to share time with Deputy Boylan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Bill but it will require serious alteration on Committee Stage and I am confident the Minister will accept Opposition amendments which will improve its provisions. The Minister faults Members of the Opposition for constantly condemning his actions but, while we have been critical in the past, we will acknowledge any positive step he takes to improve the lot of carers.

The Bill will improve and safeguard the position of carers in that the employment rights of a person in employment who becomes a full-time carer will be protected. People will be entitled to take 15 months off work to care for a person in the home and to get their jobs back after that time. I note that people may not necessarily get their old jobs back and that aspect must be ironed out. This legislation will affect employers as well as employees who become carers.

Section 6 states that two members of the same family cannot take leave from employment to care for a person in their home. When a child, or more usually an elderly parent, requires full-time care and attention, that places a very severe burden on the carer. Perhaps the Minister could consider allowing two members of the same family to avail of carer's leave. The task of caring is a very stressful one, particularly if the person being cared for has had a stroke and is incontinent and bedridden. It would benefit both the carer and the person receiving the care if the caring responsibilities could be shared between two people on a three and a half day week basis. That would ensure the carer would not become completely exhausted and that the person receiving the care would not be affected by a carer who could, through sheer stress, occasionally lose his or her temper.

Will the Minister clarify whether people who avail of leave under the Bill will be entitled to mid-year respite care in the same way as people who are currently receiving the carer's allowance? It would be very strange if that were not the case.

The leave provided under the Bill will be granted for a 15 month period. What will happen if a family member takes leave from employment and if the person for whom he or she is caring requires care for a period longer than 15 months? Would such carers lose all their rights under the Bill or could they return to work after 15 months and allow another family member to avail of the leave to continue providing care?

We cannot debate a Bill such as this without referring to the situation in which carers find themselves. There are some strange anomalies in the carer's allowance. If the wife of a person in employment qualifies for the carer's allowance which is £80.50 per week, she will lose £33.60 per week if her spouse is paying the top rate of tax because her allowance will also be taxable. That is ridiculous.

The other huge anomaly in regard to carer's allowance arises where a carer, usually a woman, cares for her husband's father, for example, who may be bed ridden and doubly incontinent. If the carer's husband dies, she will receive the widow's pension but lose the carer's allowance in spite of the fact that she continues to be a full-time carer. That anomaly should be corrected. The Minister has informed me on numerous occasions that it is not possible to pay people two social welfare payments. There is a limited number of carers in the country and there would not be ten people throughout the country in any one year period who would be widowed but continue to be carers. Special provision should be made for such people.

Deputies bring their personal experiences to bear in this House in an effort to assist their constituents. I am aware of a case where a woman provided care in circumstances such as those I described. Her husband was a small farmer and, as his weekly income was less than £150, she qualified for the carer's allowance. Sadly, she was widowed following her husband's death in an accident. She applied for the widow's pension, which she received, but she lost the carer's allowance in the same week. That is not just. That woman was further penalised by the Department as a result of being widowed. She now has to employ a labourer to do the farm work because she provides care to her father-in-law 24 hours a day for 365 days a year. I will use every available opportunity to highlight this serious anomaly.

The Bill states that an employee must be in the continuous employment of the employer from whose employment the leave is to be taken for at least 12 months prior to the commencement of leave.

That is something that should be examined as well.

Suppose someone has changed job and has been working with an employer for up to eleven and a half months. Suppose his or her father or mother has a stroke or, God forbid, an accident, and he or she must leave employment to become a full time carer. As this person has not worked with that employer for 12 months he or she does not qualify for carer's leave. The person concerned must leave the job and will not have any guarantee of the job being there if the parent dies within the 15 month period and he or she seeks to return to work. That anomaly should be corrected.

An employee is entitled to a maximum of 65 weeks. If care is necessary after 15 months, a person cannot simply walk out and leave the person for whom he or she cares. That is another anomaly which should be corrected.

The Bill states that carer's leave is unpaid but reckonable for purposes of employment rights other than superannuation. That aspect of the Bill should be examined as it penalises the person who in a job may earn £200 or £300 a week but who comes home to care for someone and gets £80 a week. Such people should not lose their pension rights if they take time off from work to care for a person in the home who needs care.

I thank Deputy McCormack for sharing time with me and I support many of the issues raised by him in his well constructed address. I welcome the introduction of the Carer's Leave Bill to the Dáil, as does every member of the House.

It is an indication that the Government realises the important role of carers in society. This is a small step in the right direction. One would have expected more. There was an opportunity to do more, as we have been talking around this issue and putting proposals forward from every side of the House. There was an opportunity to take a major step forward with this Bill to do something positive. There was a realisation that we understand the problems and needs of carers in many families.

We can go through history and see the sacrifices that many family members made in giving up their future in life to care for a handicapped brother, sister, parent or family member. These sacrifices were made without any expectation that anyone would reward them. Many poor people thought reward would be theirs in the next world. They had that faith and that must also be recognised.

Life moves on and we are in a new society, where both incomes of a young couple are necessary to address the problems of mortgage repayments. The parents or a handicapped person within the family may need to be cared for. That realisation is there. It is traditional to our people, but the nursing home concept is not acceptable. Nursing homes play a role but the last thing an elderly or handicapped person wants is a nursing home. I am told time and again by many elderly people that all they want is their own corner where they are lord and master. It is not much to ask and it is the least the State can do to give support to the people that are prepared to help to make that possible. In those cases the Carer's Leave Bill comes into play.

The 12 or 15 month period provided for is short and the problem will still be there afterwards. It cannot be left open-ended but can we say three years or five years? Three years is reasonable and in that period things can happen and adjustments can be made. Other members of the family can perhaps play their part.

On the issues raised by Deputy McCormack, the Minister and I have often spoken about them in the corridors of the House, and he, too, realises that the qualifying restrictions are more of a problem in rural Ireland than in urban Ireland. In a rural setting the house is isolated. In an urban setting one has neighbours in close proximity and communities can come together and do more. In a rural setting, however, there is a major problem.

On the qualifying restrictions and the proximity to the household from which the caring is offered, five miles is not a great distance for cars. I know people who want to offer this facility to an old couple. They live five miles from the home of the old couple and are not accepted. They are prepared to be there in the morning at 9 a.m. and to stay until 9 p.m. That is a great gesture and yet the allowance will not be given due to the proximity to the home rule. It is not considered that the required attention could be given. They are there before the couple gets up in the morning and will be there when the couple goes to bed at night. That is a good service and it means that those old people can stay in their home and that they are safe. The State, however, says "No". The carers are not living close enough. In a rural setting it is not easy to get people in that close proximity.

It is time we examined more closely the qualifying limitations and the income limitations. It is time to do away with income-related caring. If people are prepared to offer caring there should not be any restrictions on qualifying income.

There is an example in the farming community, of a 40 acre farm where the husband has had a stroke and the wife wishes to care for him. They were good farmers but that has changed. Production on the farm now will be greatly restricted. The type of farming must change and yet carer's allowance will not be paid. People in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs do not, or do not want to understand. It is simply the bottom line or it is income related.

Deputy McCormack referred to old age pensioners and said that, when one reaches pension age, carer's allowance will be deducted. I do not accept that. We are being menial. We should be positive in doing something that will give a lift to people that do this great work for which there is a need.

People are living longer and more elderly people will live within our communities. It is important that we keep abreast of that. We must be delighted for and welcome better conditions in households, better diet and better medical facilities. The problem will be ongoing and at the other end of the scale there are young people who must get on with their lives.

I agree that the Carer's Leave Bill is a step in the right direction but it is not the total answer to what is a major and serious problem. It is one of the problems I deal with in my constituency clinics on a regular, weekly basis. It is not the same families, but new families who come in.

Nursing homes are sprouting up all over the place and, though they are a welcome development, they are more of a commercial development. People see it as an opportunity to get into a business. They are doing a good job, I am not against what they are doing but it is not the solution.

We should wonder whether, when our day comes, someone will march us off to a nursing home and that will be it. That is not what we want. That is not what elderly people want. Let us put ourselves in their place and think how they think. Let us not say to them that we know what is good for them. We do not. They themselves know what they want. They want their independence. They want to stay where they grew up or where they have been resident for years. They want to spend their last days in reasonable comfort. They do not talk about palaces or anything extraordinary but something that is reasonable.

In a tiger economy, if it is to be all-inclusive, these people must be included. Otherwise we are neglecting the people who built this State, and gave us the country we can now cherish and live in and in which there is so much to offer. We should not forget those who did it for us.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It has been on the drawing board for quite some time at this stage, approximately 15 months, at least.

The carer's benefit was announced in the budget of December 1999 and the carer's benefit came into force in October 2000. People have been in receipt of carer's benefit for the past four months or so. It was made clear in the Budget Statement a year ago that legislation would be introduced to deal with carer's leave which is a separate issue from carer's benefit or carer's allowance. The legislation, which is being brought forward by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, deals with employment rights. People might find it confusing to hear us talk about employment rights when we are speaking about carer's benefit. However, it is important to give legislative backing to those who wish to return to work having opted for carer's leave and carer's benefit.

When this was first mentioned people thought it was revolutionary. We are perhaps one of the first countries in Europe to go down this road and it is something about which we can hold our head high. The reason we can be proud is that we are showing the world at large that we are helping those who wish to care for elderly people in their home. The Bill does not just copperfasten existing rights but establishes new entitlements. We are breaking new ground in this area. There will be new legal entitlement for employees to avail of temporary unpaid carer's leave to care for a relevant person, that is, one who is in need of full-time care. It must be stressed that there is no cost to the employer. It is unpaid leave and the employer does not have to make any contribution towards it. However, it could cause disruption in the workplace, especially in the case of small companies where it is difficult to replace key staff at short notice, particularly when the employee will be returning to work after a period. The Exchequer will finance the cost in cases where a person qualifies for carer's benefit.

Many people ask why we are introducing this now. Many years ago, a Fianna Fáil Minister, Deputy Woods, was the first to introduce the concept of a carer's allowance. There was a realisation that many people wished to be cared for in their home environment rather than in an institution. In some instances there were insufficient places in institutions but, be that as it may, many people prefer to be cared for at home. The carer's allowance was introduced on a small scale but it has grown and last year more than 16,000 people were in receipt of the allowance. That is a big increase on the number availing of it three years ago when we came to office. I know that some say many more people should be included but we are making modest progress, perhaps not at a level which I or those in my constituency would be satisfied with, but nevertheless it is reasonable and further progress was made in the recent budget.

When we entered Government three years ago there were 1.3 million people in the workforce. There are now 1.7 million. As there are an additional 300,000 people in employment they may not be in a position to avail of carer's allowance so it is necessary to expand the carer's allowance scheme to include those who are in employment and wish to take time off to care for a family member who may have a medical condition following a car accident, a stroke and so on or for an elderly relative. As so many people are now at work we must ensure our employment policy is family orientated and show we are a caring society. We cannot ignore the family circumstances of the 1.7 million people who are helping to create this strong economy from which we all benefit.

Most people prefer to be cared for in their home. We have a strong economy and it would be very poor if people did not have a quality of life with which they were happy. This is a measure that will help to improve the quality of life of many households. I hope the carer's benefit and carer's allowance schemes will be dovetailed. The Minister indicated earlier that the reason for the four month delay in introducing the legislation was to ensure the carer's leave scheme was dovetailed into the carer's benefit scheme. That scheme is in operation for four months and it is necessary to have co-ordination between the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to ensure the scheme works properly to benefit those for whom it was designed and not cause any unnecessary bureaucratic headaches although, inevitably, there will be difficulties.

Being entitled to carer's leave does not necessarily mean you are entitled to carer's benefit and vice versa. That conundrum is confusing but it must be realised that there is separate legislation designed for different purposes. It will dovetail as much as possible but there are points of difference between the legislation. It is not fully reconcilable in all cases. When people understand the scheme they will appreciate what is involved. As I understand it, the Minister can correct me if I am wrong, a person can qualify for carer's leave but not qualify for carer's benefit. In cases where they have more than 12 months' continuous employment with their current employer they can qualify for carer's leave but if they do not satisfy the PRSI regulations they will not qualify for carer's benefit. That can occur in exceptional circumstances. In such cases it is open to a person who qualifies for carer's leave under this legislation to apply for carer's allowance. It is important to stress that. If they are not in receipt of carer's benefit, have given up their job, do not have an income, and provide full-time care they will be subject to a means test and, I am sure in practically all cases, will qualify for carer's allowance. They could have the benefit of carer's leave and carer's allowance. People will not mind what the allowance is called at the end of the day if they receive the benefit of the payment while they are out of work.

A person may qualify for carer's benefit but not for carer's leave. In such cases people may meet the PRSI contributions but may be only recently in a new job and not meet the 12 months' continuous employment with their current employer. It would be difficult for an employer having taken on a new employee to give carer's leave, particularly in a small company. We must strike a balance between the rights of employees and employers. Prior to the legislation being finalised, there were detailed discussions with the employers' representatives, IBEC and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions representing the social partners. That is why the legislation is so good. In such cases, people will qualify for carer's benefit but will not meet the employment criteria. That is an anomaly in the legislation. It is important that when the information leaflets are published and made available through employment offices, and especially social welfare offices, people understand the difference between these two matters. I am sure the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment would not normally do this but when people are being sent their annual tax free allowances from the Revenue Commissioners, perhaps an explanatory leaflet on these issues could be included in the envelope. This leave is of greatest benefit to people who are currently in employment but they would have no reason to call into local employment exchanges or social welfare offices so they would not get the information leaflets that tend to be available in those locations. Perhaps the best way of communicating with them would be to enclose a leaflet with their annual tax free allowance.

When we go to the trouble of enacting legislation in the House, it is important to ensure that as many people as possible know about it and have the opportunity to avail of the new schemes we are introducing, but they can only avail of them if they have knowledge of them. There is an onus on the Department to ensure the public are fully informed of this new scheme, which I believe is breaking new ground.

I heard Opposition Deputies complain earlier about the carer's benefit and they talked about people having X amount of income or land. Carer's benefit is not means tested; that is the essence of this scheme. Carer's allowance is means tested. The comments made across the floor were valid in respect of carer's allowance but it would be wrong to send out a misleading message from this House that people will have difficulty qualifying for the carer's benefit if they have an income. Carer's benefit is earned by way of a person's PRSI contribution; it is not means tested so it is important to state that.

I know of two cases in my constituency where people applied and were approved for carer's benefit before Christmas but who came to me asking about their entitlement to carer's leave. I know the Minister said that some employers have been taking a compassionate and pragmatic approach and allowing people to take up carer's leave pending finalisation of the carer's leave legislation in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I hope the legislation will pass through the Houses and that the 200 people who have already got the carer's benefit since last October will automatically qualify for the carer's leave entitlement provided they are entitled to it in the normal course of events. Perhaps the Minister will provide some clarification on what I would call these transitional measures, later in the debate because more than 200 people are caught in the trap of having obtained the carer's benefit but are now waiting for this legislation to pass through the Houses. The intention of the Government is clear-cut. We want to assist these people but it would be beneficial if the Minister would make a clear statement on that aspect during the passage of the Bill.

The benefit being introduced depends on the level of income that a person is currently earning. Some people will say it is not very generous but it is a good start. This benefit did not exist four months ago but now, as a result of the most recent budget, the carer's benefit will be £95.50 per week if the person is caring for one person. Where a person is caring for a second individual, there is a 50% increase on that figure. There is also a £13.20 child dependant allowance per week for a person on carer's benefit. The carer will obtain the £400 respite care per person and if caring for two people, will receive a respite payment of £800 and, as happens in some of these cases, if the person being cared for dies, the carer's benefit continues for an additional six weeks. That is a good measure.

I realise this question is a matter for the Department of Finance but it is important when dealing with legislation which has an impact on other Departments. Will people in receipt of carer's benefit now be able to avail of the special tax free allowance of £300 introduced in last year's budget for a stay at home spouse who is providing full-time care and attention to an elderly or a young person in the home? I presume that a person out of work who is providing full-time care at home, notwithstanding the fact that he or she is in receipt of carer's benefit, would be entitled to the carer's tax free allowance but that is a matter for the Revenue Commissioners to clarify. It would be beneficial, however, if the Minister could clarify that point also because my understanding is that the carer would be entitled to both.

The carer's allowance, as I mentioned earlier, is £98.50 plus a child dependant allowance of £13.20 and the £400 respite care, but people in receipt of carer's allowance also avail of all the free schemes which are a normal feature of social welfare legislation. Some people who qualify under the Carer's Leave Bill but who, because of some PRSI contribution issues, do not get the carer's benefit may have to apply for the carer's allowance. It is important in that respect that we increased in the budget the income disregard for a person from £75 to £125. That amount of income is disregarded and they can still qualify for the full carer's allowance. In the case of a couple, those figures are doubled from £150 to £250 so a couple earning £12,000 or £14,000 can still qualify for the full carer's allowance. Families earning up to £19,000 will be entitled to some element, even though it will be a reduced amount of carer's allowance. That is important.

In the years ahead we will see the number of carers increasing because the population is getting older and more people want to be cared for at home. The Carers Association currently provides assistance to people in the community who are providing full-time care.

In relation to the carer's leave scheme, the key conditions for a person applying for carer's leave will be that they should care for an appropriate person and there will be one medical examination for the carer's leave and carer's benefit. It is important that the person from social welfare car ries out one examination to fulfil both schemes. The acknowledgement from the Department of Social Welfare that an application has been received will be an adequate notice for an employee to present to his employer to indicate that he intends to apply for the carer's leave scheme in a six week period. The person must also be in continuous employment for 12 months with that employer and this can operate up to 15 months, which is very extensive.

There has to be a balance from the employer's point of view and an employer has the right to refuse carer's leave for a period of under 13 weeks. That is to ensure that small employments can continue to function adequately. Also, on resumption of employment a person should be allowed to return to his or her previous work and if that is not possible, he or she must be brought back on terms and conditions not less favourable than their previous conditions.

My concerns are that the medical assessments will be carried out promptly. Also, if there is to be an appeals period, it should not be dealt with by the social welfare appeals office because that will take months. There should be a fast-track system for this area. I acknowledge the difficulties this will cause for employers. The Bill is modelled on the Parental Leave Act, 1998, which is working very successfully. This is the first Bill of its kind in Europe and I am happy to commend it to the House.

I, too, welcome the Bill and commend the Minister for introducing it. It is an important Bill which recognises the role of carers and the need for families in certain circumstances to leave work to care for a loved one. We have had an increase in the number of carers in recent years as well as a recognition of carers. Prior to that we did not recognise or accept the fabulous work done by families for their loved ones, the elderly, those with disabilities and those who are ill. There is a growing recognition that people with a physical or mental disability should be kept out of institutional care and be cared for instead in the community for as long as possible. Any measure which encourages the development of the carer's scheme and responds to the needs of carers is to be welcomed. The number of carers will increase dramatically in the coming years. In 25 years approximately half of the population of Europe will have reached retirement age, while there will be an increase of 50% in the number of retired people in this State. The Bill goes some way towards recognising this.

The Bill is a good start in recognising that families must be given the opportunity to care for their loved ones at home. In the past, people were more amenable to doing this but due to economic pressures most couples now work outside the home and there is less opportunity for caring at home. We all know people, particularly women, who stayed at home to care for their ageing parents. They missed out on many of life's experi ences, while many of them did not get married. These great people were not given proper recognition for their work, while sometimes they were scoffed at by people who did not know better. Nowadays it is difficult from a financial point of view for people to stay at home to care for their relatives. In addition, many people do not accept that they should miss out on life's experiences. I agree with them. We must look at other ways of ensuring that people in need of care receive it without having to be admitted to institutions.

Carers provide a high level of care at home for children with severe disabilities, frail elderly people and those who are terminally ill. Why will a carer's leave be terminated after 15 months? What will happen in the case of a person who takes time off work to care for someone who is very ill with cancer? I know people who took leave to care for a terminally ill relative who lived longer than 15 months. I did not see a provision which enables the leave to be extended for an extra period. Will people in such a difficult situation have to leave their loved one and return to work if they do not want to lose their jobs? Is that the stark choice which has to be made by a person who has cared for 15 months for somebody nearing the end of his life?

Due to the high levels of social and health care needed, carers must be constantly available at home and in cases of emergency. A person who has become a semi-invalid after a stroke requires much care and families have to ensure that they are not in any danger. I remember a case some years ago involving an elderly man in a wheelchair who was looked after at home by his elderly wife. She had a heart attack and fell into the fire and when he tried to rescue her he was also burned. It is important that carers are available to ensure the safety of the elderly, infirm, etc.

A carer's life centres around the needs of the person requiring care. Many carers suffer from poor health as a result of the physical and emotional effects of providing a high level of long-term care. We must examine the issue of respite care and provide more respite places for carers so that they can get a break from the difficult job of caring.

Research completed in recent months by the Western Health Board indicates that there are some 20,000 family carers in its area. If one takes the ten health board areas, this suggests that the total number of carers is more than 200,000. However, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs states that the number of carers receiving assistance is 49,000. This means there are 150,000 carers who do not receive any help or assistance. Given their special circumstances, the Minister must revisit the issue of means testing for carers at the first available opportunity. A special arrangement should be put in place for carers who give up work to care for a family member. The best way of doing this is to double the means test so that many more people qualify for a carer's allowance.

I pay tribute to the carers association which has lobbied politicians on the issue of the means test. It regards it as an issue of justice that carers have an adequate standard of living and believes that the means test is one way of ensuring this. The National Voluntary Organisation of Family Carers in the Home has a national network of 36 care centres which provide information, advice, advocacy, training, research and home-based respite care services. It employs more than 130 people, with funding provided by the Department of Health and Children, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, FÁS and the health boards. It also receives corporate and voluntary contributions.

I refer to the provision of personal assistants for people with disabilities. Under this excellent scheme, which was provided through FÁS, people acted as personal assistants for those in need of assistance, most of whom were in wheelchairs. At a time when the Government is flush with money, serious consideration should be given to formalising this service for those who can benefit from it. I have seen the effect of personal assistance. I met representatives from the Centre for Independent Living from my constituency before the budget. They had some personal assistants with them and commented on the change in their quality of life and their opportunities for travelling. It was enormous and ensured they had some level of dignity, some level of mobility and enabled them to have what we would call a much more normal life.

To return to the Bill, I note that the employee must have been in the continuous employment of the employer from whose employment the leave is to be taken for at least 12 months before he or she can commence leave. Why must that be the case? If the employee's husband or wife had a heart attack or contracted cancer or had a stroke, three, four or five months into the employment, the employee cannot avail of this. Should the need for care not be a priority? This area should be examined. Is the Minister suggesting that somebody who has a serious illness should be put into an institution until the carer has been 12 months in employment and that then they can be facilitated and given the space to bring the person out of the institution to be cared for. A previous speaker gave the example that somebody who has been in continuous employment for 20 years and changed employment within the past 12 months cannot take up the opportunity to care for an infirm person. I remember when one could not carry forward pension scheme benefits when one changed employment. In other words, benefit stopped when one changed employment. Nowadays there is the facility for continuation of pension scheme rights when one changes employment. Why could something similar not apply here? Could the time in previous employment be aggregated and constitute a half-way house in the interests of being fair and allowing a person the opportunity to provide care.

I note that carer's leave is unpaid but reckonable for the purposes of employment rights except for superannuation and certain public holidays. Is it not a bit mean that these two areas have been excluded, and will the Minister examine this area? Under many company pay schemes superannuation and public holidays are taken into account as part of the benefits of the various sickness schemes for people who are on sick leave from employment. Could a similar approach not be taken here so that superannuation and public holidays would be reckonable in the case of the carer.

Sections 9 and 10 provide that at least six weeks' prior notice in writing is required from the employee, except where not reasonably practicable, in which case notice should be given as soon as is reasonably practicable. Does that mean where a person has had a stroke or a severe accident? I was talking to somebody today whose wife fell down the stairs and broke her spine and is in constant pain. Does somebody have to give six weeks' notice in order to avail of the opportunity to care for a relative in such circumstances? Perhaps the Minister would clarify the phrase "except where not reasonably practicable". Would the example I gave be considered to be a case where it would not be reasonably practicable to give six week's written notice?

Section 15 provides that where on resumption of work following a period of carer's leave it is not reasonably practicable for the employer to permit the employee to return to the same work as he or she did prior to leave, suitable alternative work on terms and conditions not less favourable to the employee than those applicable to his own or his previous employment should be provided by the employer. As somebody who was involved in personnel management and industrial relations for 20 years, I know this is an area where everybody leaving a job would be very anxious to return to the same position. As far as possible people should be allowed to do so. I was on the Employment Appeals Tribunal for nine years and I have seen situations where employers took exception to somebody taking leave and, on their return to work, gave them a position where they were not happy and the employers knew they were not happy. Because of the leave, the employer felt the employee was a cost to him and might be out again on sick leave or maternity leave, and the employee was constructively dismissed. I have seen such cases brought to the Employment Appeals Tribunal. I have known people who went back to their office to find nothing in it, not even a telephone, and told their conditions were the same, their pension entitlements, their emoluments. They were given a small piece of work and their morale was destroyed and they were constructively dismissed. We must ensure that this sort of approach is not tolerated. I know the reply will be that it would be taken care of under the Unfair Dismissals Act. To a certain extent it is, but the human tragedy of it is the Unfair Dismissals Act comes into play six or eight months after the employee has left the employment, by which time the relationship between the employer and the employee has totally broken down and the employee probably does not want to return to an employer who treated him in such a fashion. I would like the Minister, therefore, to tease out a little more in his reply how a carer returning to work will not experience such a situation.

I welcome the Bill. The old and the ill deserve dignity. They like to be able to stay at home. They should be facilitated in every way possible. This Bill goes some way towards achieving that. If a carer takes ten or 12 months' leave and the person for whom he is caring improves in health but six months further on his health deteriorates, can the employee commence a 35 week period of carer's leave?

I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Carer's Leave Bill, 2000. I am making my contribution in tribute to the many thousands of carers who are making such a difference to the huge number that are looked after by carers throughout the country. In this materialistic age the concept of the extended family with grandparents, parents and children living in a close family unit is fast fading. There is severe difficulty in getting young people or more mature people, or any people, to volunteer for work with people in need, political organisations or other voluntary bodies. That this year has been deemed the year of the volunteer indicates the difficulty we have generally in recruiting volunteers. Carers in the caring profession have developed from a voluntary basis. However, matters have changed. Ireland is developing a solid economic base. The nuclear family is the norm and we must recognise the work and efforts of carers and improve the current benefits and allowances available to them, which are not fully satisfactory. This Bill is a significant step in that direction.

Carers often have a lonely, thankless job, and that is the position for some more than others. The Carers Association of Ireland put it very well when it stated that caring for a severely incapacitated person at home is not easy. Carers can often have conflicting feelings and emotions. They can feel a deep sense of satisfaction in doing a very important job of work at home, which maintains the independence and dignity of the person being cared for. The carer can also feel the work he or she is doing at home is unrecognised and unappreciated and, depending on family circumstances, attitudes within the home can vary from supportive words and actions to lack of interest to criticism of the carer and the quality of care being provided. The relationship between the carer and the person being cared for varies from case to case.

Factors affecting the relationship between both include the nature of the relationship, whether daughter and mother, son and mother, mother and child, and so on, and the quality of the relationship before the caring situation arose. Issues centred on the control exercised by one party over the other can be crucial. The need for the carer to assist the cared for person in independent living must be balanced with the expectations of both and the perceptions of both of the role of carer. There may be a tendency for one party to exert control over the other party.

The context in which the caring takes place is important. For example, if the carer has to give up work to care for someone at home, the financial strains of being a carer, expressed or implied longer term financial benefits for the carer, such as understandings on property inheritance rights, and many other hidden factors can come into the equation. Also important are the caring duties involved and the health of the carer. The physical and emotional stresses caused by very intensive long-term care at home can be high. Many carers suffer a range of physical and emotional difficulties and, in some cases, serious deterioration in the carer's own health.

The emphasis on the maintenance of employment rights in the Bill will take a good deal of the worry and burden off carers in relation to what will happen to them when their caring task or burden is done. Often the task of caring arises out of the blue. It is beneficial for the person concerned to have 65 weeks in which to plan to return to one's career and to work out the financial aspects of caring for a loved person and maybe to arrange for other more appropriate care. The initial feeling of a person at work when something happens to a relative is not to protect his or her job or employment rights, but one of a deep hurt and pain because that person's relative is in pain.

Section 3(2) provides that before making regulations under this Act, the Minister shall consult the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs and persons whom the Minister considers to be representative of employment and employees having regard to the regulations so made. I am glad the Minister is taking on board the concerns of the employers as well as the employees. Deputy Ring pointed out the difficulty employers with one or two employees may experience in terms of the provisions of the Bill. I ask that the concerns of such employers be taken on board and that they be consulted when these regulations are being made.

Section 3(5) provides that the Minister, after consultation with any other Minister, who, in the opinion of the Minister, might be concerned with the matter, may by regulations exempt from the application of a specified provision or provisions of this Act persons employed in any specified class or classes of activity. We need to be careful such special treatment is accorded only to employments where there are absolutely necessary circumstances. It may be necessary to be more specific in this section to ensure there is not a wide exemption included in it.

Section 4(3) provides that nothing in this Act shall be construed as prohibiting the inclusion in an agreement of a provision more favourable to an employee than any provisions in Parts 2 to 5. This is a great challenge in terms of employer-employee contracts to push out the boundaries of our social economy. The country is developing economically and this is an opportunity for employers to develop the social content of employment contracts. I look forward to innovative improvements by employers whereby they will take on board some of the care responsibilities of their employees.

Deputy Neville referred to the requirement in section 6(1) that an employee applying for carer's leave must be in continuous employment for 12 months. While I accept his comments, some concern must be given to the continuity of a business and the impact employee's carer's leave may have on the other employees. On that basis the 12 months' continuous employment requirement is a reasonable period.

Section 6(5) provides that an employee who proposes to avail of carer's leave shall apply to the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs for a decision by a deciding officer under the Act of 1993 and that the person in respect of whom the employee proposes to avail of carer's leave in order to provide full-time care and attention is a relevant person. Judgment must be exercised in that regard. The full picture must be examined in deciding whether the person to be cared for is a relevant person. Broad criteria are needed to take account not only of who is the person to be cared for but the relationship between the proposed carer and the person to be cared for on the basis that certain carers may be in a better position to give more tender loving care to the person who needs it and the result may be better for everybody concerned.

Section 7(4) provides that carer's leave shall not exceed 130 weeks. That is a long time and an element we will have to consider in the employer-employee relationship. The continued employment of a person after 121 weeks in today's rapidly evolving technologically based companies may pose insoluble problems. It may be unfair to allow unfair dismissal procedures to be followed in this type of case. I do not have the full answer, but we must address that, particularly in light of the type of industries here and that are being attracted here. Implementing that provision could be a heavy burden for a business or an employer to adopt and use.

Debate adjourned.