Other Questions. - Social Welfare Benefits.

Jack Wall

Ceist:

77 Mr. Wall asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if the Government has considered the abolition of the means test for the carer's allowance; her views on the statement from the Carers Association regarding the lack of adequate pay for carers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24218/03]

Dan Neville

Ceist:

79 Mr. Neville asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the plans she has to facilitate carers who are full-time carers and in receipt of other social welfare payments to be also eligible for the carer's allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24324/03]

Ciarán Cuffe

Ceist:

85 Mr. Cuffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the new initiatives her Department intends to take on the basis that nearly half of all current carers are over the age of 60 years, and 20% of carers are caring for more than one person. [24293/03]

Paul McGrath

Ceist:

103 Mr. P. McGrath asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the estimates for the cost of abolishing the means test for the carer's allowance. [24325/03]

Joan Burton

Ceist:

108 Ms Burton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the call from the Carers Association for a charter of basic rights for carers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24217/03]

Jim O'Keeffe

Ceist:

116 Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the position in relation to the consultation process on the financing of long-term care; and when it is envisaged that strategic policy on the care of older people will be established. [24226/03]

Joan Burton

Ceist:

118 Ms Burton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the steps she proposes to take on foot of the report, Study to Examine the Future Financing of Long-Term Care in Ireland; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24216/03]

Brian O'Shea

Ceist:

121 Mr. O'Shea asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on whether an increase in the level of PRSI is necessary to assist in the funding of long-term care for the elderly; if she has conducted an assessment of the financial requirements to resource long-term care in the future; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24214/03]

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

276 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will extend the carer's allowance, with particular reference to the means test; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24567/03]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 77, 79, 85, 103, 108, 116, 118, 121 and 276 together.

The carer's allowance is a social assistance payment which provides income support to people who are providing certain elderly or incapacitated persons with full-time care and attention and whose incomes fall below a certain limit. There are more than 21,000 people in receipt of the allowance at a cost of €160 million last year. As with all other social assistance schemes, a means test applies, under which the income of the applicant and his or her partner is assessable. This ensures that limited resources are directed to those in greatest need.

Provision has been made in successive budgets for substantial increases in the means disregards. In April 2003, the weekly income disregards increased to €210 for a single carer and to €420 for a couple. The effect of this increase is that a couple with two children, earning a joint income of up to €24,150, can qualify for the maximum rate of carer's allowance. The same couple, if they had an income of €39,750, could still qualify for partial carer's allowance, the free schemes and the respite care grant.

It is estimated that abolition of the means test could cost in the region of €150 million per annum. In view of the many supports required by carers, particularly community care and respite care, it is considered that abolition of the means test would not necessarily constitute the best use of the resources available for the support of carers. I must emphasise that the carer's allowance is an income support payment and not a payment for caring.

In addition to further improving the means test, I also made provision in budget 2003 for an increase in the weekly rates of payment by €7 to €129.60 for carers aged under 66 and by €10 to €147.80 for carers aged over 66. The annual respite care grant increased by €100 to €735 and to €1,470 for carers who are caring for more than one person.

In regard to paying carer's allowance concurrently with another social welfare payment, the primary objective of the social welfare system is to provide income support and, as a general rule, only one social welfare payment is payable to an individual. This ensures that resources are not used to make two income support payments to anyone individual. Of course, persons qualifying for two social welfare payments will always receive the higher payment to which they are entitled.

Earlier this year, I launched a comprehensive study on the future financing of long-term care, carried out by consultants on behalf of my Department. In order to make progress in the area of policy on long-term care, my Department is preparing a consultation document to accompany this study which will aim to focus all interested parties on the specific issues we need to address. These are significant issues including those in relation to benefit designs, cost and financing, which are discussed at length in the report. A consultation process on the financing of long-term care will then take place. It is envisaged that the feedback from this would be the starting point for the commitment in Sustaining Progress to examine the strategic policy, cost and service delivery issues associated with the care of older people. I hope the working group to conduct this examination could be established in the first quarter of 2004. The report examined a number of financing options for long-term care, including social insurance. All the options, including the PRSI model mentioned by the Deputy, will be considered during the consultation process.

I should mention that I recently met with the Carers Association at my pre-budget forum. I am aware of the organisation's concerns in regard to carers and have assured them that these will be examined in the context of the forthcoming budget. The development of the range of supports for carers is a priority for this Government and, building on the foundations already in place, we will continue to develop the types of services which recognise the value of the caring ethos and provide real support and practical assistance to people who devote their time to improving the quality of life for others.

I thank the Minister for her reply and I note that there have been some efforts to ameliorate the circumstances of carers. There are 100,000 carers, 21,000 of whom receive a payment of some sort, although not all at the maximum level. Is it not a scandal and an indictment of society that people who work 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 52 weeks per year and some of whom are widows, cannot get a respite care grant? Is it not time that the respite care grant be paid regardless of other welfare payments people receive, since it is only a token grant of €750?

The big problem carers have is the State's failure to recognise the work they do. I know the Minister does not view this as a payment for car ing, but rather an income support. However, the carers would rather if it was. The Minister says it is a bit early to do so but I have always been an advocate of abolishing the means test. If the Government could abolish the means test for medical cards for people over 70 years of age – the richest of whom may be tax exiles – surely it can abolish the means test for the 100,000 or so people who provide care every day of the week and every week of the year, saving the State many millions of euro. The savings are gained because elderly and infirm people are not being placed in institutions and places are not available in any case. Do we know how much we are saving?

On a cost-benefit analysis, €150 million could be gained through a percentage increase in capital gains tax for the ultra rich and it would be money well spent. It would be the first tangible effort by the Government to redistribute wealth to the people who need it most and should be cared for, namely, the carers who are carrying out the caring work for us all on the cheap.

We have had a number of debates on this issue and I know that the Deputy, as chairperson of the committee, is examining the issue of caring specifically. I value the work which is being done and will seek the committee's views in regard to the financing of long-term care. It is incumbent on us to find some way of paying for it. The idea of home subvention is the best way forward, perhaps with the culmination of the carer's benefit and carer's allowance with the support networks. Anyone who has looked at the cost of care in a health board institution will recognise the massive saving. As the Deputy knows, any survey of people who are being cared for at home shows that they are much happier there and prefer not to go to an institution.

As the Deputy indicated, the census indicates that 148,000 people describe themselves as carers. However, when this is broken down on the determinant of full-time care and attention, which is accepted by the Department, the figure is about 20,000 who are in receipt of carer's allowance or carer's benefit.

I agree that the respite care grant has been of great value. It is a recognition of the caring role which people have. It is one of the issues in the House to which many Members are emotionally attached and I can see why since we have all had experience of people who find it difficult. On reflection, one wonders how people have the opportunity and ability to do some of the work which is being done.

The Government is committed in its programme to increase the disregards in order to make more people eligible for carer's allowance. However, there is not full agreement within all the political parties, even my own, that we should remove the income means tests completely, because we have seen that by taking away the means test for other benefits – such as the medi cal card to which the Deputy referred – perhaps it should be a more targeted approach.

I would like to continue with that targeted approach and hope we will take it upon ourselves to provide for care, given the change in demographics. Through the family forum, I have had the opportunity to travel to most parts of the country and, of all the issues arising, caring is the biggest. As the Deputy pointed out, we will have to examine how we will pay for it, because the day is gone when grandparents are cared for in their home. How we deal with this issue will be a reflection of our society.

I am surprised the Minister is answering this question since at a recent Age Action Ireland conference, the Minister of State with responsibility for the elderly, Deputy Callely, told them—

He is not a Minister of State in my Department.

I saw Age Action Ireland's brochure today in which there were great photographs of Deputy McManus and the Minister and I wanted to ask the organisation what Fine Gael did for them since there was no Fine Gael Member represented. The Minister of State, Deputy Callely, gave a commitment that the means test would be abolished. I am surprised the Minister did not confirm that today.

Benefits derived from medical cards, rent allowance, back to school allowance and so on should be disregarded in respect of people in receipt of carer's allowance. These people are doing a valuable job for society. This is not a payment and it is wrong that one arm of the State gives it while another takes it away. The medical card or back-to-school clothing and footwear payments should not be reckoned as income.

The Minister should examine this issue in the run-up to the budget because the people concerned do a valuable job. According to census figures, over 150,000 people are looking after others at home. Of the 21,000 in receipt of a payment, only 13,000 receive the full amount. They are saving the State a fortune. The time has come for the Government and society to recognise them, particularly the women who make up 90% of carers, by abolishing the means test. Failing that, the back-to-school clothing and footwear, rent and carer's allowances should not be measured as income by local authorities because it is not income.

I did not think the Deputy was fickle enough to be upset because his picture was not taken for the Age Action Ireland brochure.

The Minister looked well.

I do my best for the Deputy. If I cannot get him one way, I will get him another.

Deputy McManus looked good as well but where was the Fine Gael representative?

Perhaps the Fine Gael representative did not attend the meeting. I will speak to Age Action Ireland to ensure the Deputy is in the next photograph, even with me, if necessary.

Carer's allowance is an income support and, as such, is taken into consideration for other schemes, although we will reflect on its being taken into consideration for medical cards and other services. I will examine this area but I am firmly of the view that we must continue with the disregard, from which we should try to support those outside the means parameter in the coming years. It is the Government's view that this is the best way forward.

We must look, not just at income support but service provision in caring in the home. I have reiterated that the financing of long-term care is a vital issue and the number of parliamentary questions tabled on the matter reflects the interest in it. We will consider the views of the Carer's Association and Care Alliance Ireland. I listened to their concerns and noted their priorities.

Given the Minister's affirmation that carer's allowance is an income support, to what extent will she introduce measures that will properly recognise the need for income support for those providing care? Deputy Cuffe's question highlights that almost 50% of all carers are over 60 years and that many of them are in receipt of a State pension and barred from receiving carers' allowance under current rules. Some 20% are caring for more than one person. There is nothing in the payment of carer's allowance that recognises the additional costs and need for income that arise for those in these situations.

The Carers Association should be applauded for its pre-budget submission, presented innovatively as a DVD that physically shows the situation for the people concerned. The Government must come up with clear proposals on how these anomalies can be sorted out and ensure that in the next budget carers are taken seriously and the amount they save the public purse every year recognised.

Huge changes have been made to the carer's allowance since it was introduced. When it started, the carer had to live in the house. That has since been changed to living within close proximity. We have accepted that people, particularly women, often look after elderly couples, such as grandparents. This has been recognised in the double payment for respite care, another initiative that was seen as invaluable in supporting carers. Carer's benefit is another new initiative in respect of which much consideration has been given to the extension of the benefit beyond 15 months. Progress is being made in achieving an income disregard that will remove those who now receive payment and increase their payment as a consequence.

I would like to be able to tell the House that I can do everything but I will look at progressive ways to deal with carers. In the long-term there will have to be a financial input in the development of caring between home subvention and the income supports available to carers. That is a challenge we must all face and the reason I am consulting widely on what should be done in the future. This consultation will marry with the views of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.