I propose to take Questions Nos. 141 to 143, inclusive, 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.
As with all other social assistance schemes, a means test in which the income of both the applicant and his or her partner is assessable is applied to the carer's allowance to ensure that limited resources are directed to those in greatest need.
Provision has been made in successive budgets for substantial increases in the income disregards under the scheme. From April 2004, the weekly income disregards will increase to €250 for a single carer and to €500 for a couple. It is estimated that abolition of the means test for carer's allowance could cost in the region of €180 million per annum.
In relation to paying carer's allowance concurrently with another social welfare payment, such as an old age pension, 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. Persons qualifying for two social welfare payments always receive the higher payment to which they are entitled.
The review of the carer's allowance, which was published in October 1998, considered the introduction of a non-means tested continual care payment to be given, following a needs assessment, to carers caring for those who are in the highest category of dependency.
More recently in 2003, I launched a study on the future financing of long-term care. The study considers a range of benefit delivery mechanisms, including the continual care payment, as well as the issue of a needs assessment. It suggests that consideration be given to a flexible system whereby, following needs assessment, the person in need of care and their carer would select in-kind services or a cash payment or a mix of both. As there are significant issues discussed in the study, including those in relation to benefit design, cost and financing of long-term care, my officials are currently preparing a consultation document to accompany the study. This document will focus all interested parties on the specific issues we need to address. I expect that this document will be ready for circulation by the end of this month.
On completion of this consultation process, a working group, which will include all relevant parties, will examine the strategic policy, cost and service delivery issues associated with the care of older people. The issue of a continual care payment will be considered, as will other proposals, in the course of the consultation process.