The provision of support to carers has been a priority Government objective since 1997. Since then we have significantly improved the position of carers through improvements each year in the scheme, and this will continue to be a priority. The long-term care agenda is an important aspect of social policy with major financial and other implications, and I am also determined to progress this agenda by developing a framework for the future of long-term care in this country.
The report of the joint committee, which I welcome, makes a range of recommendations, many of which relate to my Department and a number of which concern the Department of Health and Children. I am always prepared to consider changes in existing arrangements where these are for the benefit of recipients and financially sustainable within the resources available to me. The abolition of the means test for the carer's allowance could cost in the region of €180 million. This is not feasible in present circumstances and, in any event, it is questionable whether it would be the best use of such resources in the light of other competing demands.
The joint committee also proposed in respect of carer's benefit, which is a social insurance payment for persons who leave employment to care for another person and which lasts for up to 15 months, that the 15 months limit should be waived where the person continues to provide care. The present arrangements include the provision of job-protected leave of absence for up to 15 months with employers being obliged to maintain the employee's employment rights for this period. Any extension of carer's benefit would, in addition to the direct cost implications, have implications for carer's leave as well.
I consider 15 months to be a reasonable period of leave in the circumstances. If there is an ongoing care requirement, a person may be entitled to carer's allowance. The joint committee also recommended payment of partial carer's allowance where a carer is in receipt of another payment. As a general rule, however, only one social welfare payment is payable at any one time and persons qualifying for two payments always receive the higher payment to which they are entitled.
The joint committee made a number of specific recommendations on the respite care grant which will be considered in light of future improvements in the scheme in a budgetary context. The joint committee also made proposals for the administration of the scheme and, in particular, the provision of improved information to carers, which I am having examined.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
Regarding the long-term care agenda, I note that the joint committee has examined the study I launched last year on the future financing of long-term care. My Department is preparing a consultation document which will aim to focus interested parties on the specific complex issues we need to address which include benefit design, delivery, cost and financing which are discussed at length in the report. I intend to issue the consultation document to all interested parties shortly.
A consultation process on the financing of long-term care will then take place. I envisage that the feedback from this process will be the starting point for meeting the commitment in Sustaining Progress on examining the strategic policy, cost and service delivery issues associated with the care of older people. I hope that the working group to conduct this examination could be established in mid-2004.