Wednesday, 10 March 2004

Ceisteanna (22)

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

95 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the steps she intends to take to implement the 15 recommendations contained in the November 2003 report, The Position of Full-Time Carers, from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, specifically the recommendation for the abolition of the means test for the carer’s allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7798/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (5 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

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.

Is it not the case that we have approximately 150,000 carers, depending on the definition of carers, and that, of that number, only 23,000 or so receive any sort of carer's allowance and only 16,000 to 17,000 receive the full carer's allowance? Is it not the case that, as a nation, we have got away with caring for our elderly and disabled on the cheap? We have behaved disgracefully by failing to recognise the work and role of carers, some of whom receive approximately 80 cent per hour. That is the height of it for the work they are doing.

This is not about money. It is about recognition. Many people accept it might be difficult to abolish the means test, although our party is committed to that. An array of forms is needed for this scheme and more money is spent on the administration of the scheme than is allocated to recipients. That is why we will abolish the means test. If I am ever in Government, there will be no ifs, buts or maybes. It will be out with the means test which is only a way of making sure people do not avail of the scheme.

If a person becomes a widow or widower at 40 or 42 years and must look after a child who is disabled or handicapped from then until the age of 65, surely we could give such people half the rate of carer's allowance, which is approximately €70. That would not buy a person a treat but surely we could give such people the respite care allowance. Those are little matters.

I know there are difficulties with the carer's allowance. I am not so pigheaded that I cannot appreciate difficulties but I am pigheaded about the fact that we have let down the people who have cared for the elderly. They are not in it for money. If they were, they would throw the carer's allowance back at the Minister because it is an insult to the work those people have done. The money gives recognition but 130,000 people receive no recognition. I applaud the Carers' Association and the others involved in this work over the years.

In the upcoming review will the Minister take cognisance of some of the 15 recommendations of the joint committee's report? I compliment Deputies Dan Wallace, Ring and the others who worked very hard on this matter. It meant a great deal to them and, on their behalf, I ask the Minister to incorporate some of the recommendations at the next available opportunity, which is next year.

We are awash with cash and the Minister for Finance will have to find more racecourses to which he can give money. We are talking about €180 million out of €430 million. Let us give that to the people. Let us put humans top of the agenda and leave the horseflesh for another day.

The Minister for Finance will be in Cheltenham next week.

We will stick to the subject here, which is not horses. I am not the Minister with responsibility for sport, although sometimes there are blood sports in the House.

I can give the Deputy a simple answer. I will take into consideration many of the recommendations. At the end of the day we want to see carers and those they care for being looked after. I agree that, if one took an economic perspective on the investment of human capital by carers, one would see a huge imbalance between institutional care and care in the home. That is why I and the Minister for Health and Children want to look seriously at long-term care issues, as we have 20 years to address this before we have an ageing population.

It is almost the unanimous view of Members that home care should be progressed. On that basis I am actively considering future possibilities and, in the next budget, I will consider what I can do, within the budget that will be made available for me, to ensure carers receive that additionality. We increased the respite care grant again last year and we also increased the disregards. They are now up to €500 for a couple and €250 for a single person. We are working on this issue and, for the first time, we have real statistics from the Central Statistics Office on the numbers of carers. All that information and the good work of the joint committee will be evaluated and considered.

I remind Members that supplementary questions and replies are limited to one minute on each question.