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.