Wednesday, 27 November 1996
Seanad Éireann Debate
Ms O'Sullivan: I welcome the opportunity to raise this matter with the Minister. I acknowledge there have been good improvements as regards the carer's allowance and disability allowance. The improvements have benefited a spouse who looks after another. I am concerned about where a son or daughter is taking care of a dependent parent.
The Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa informed me in a letter that the further development of the carer's allowance is currently  being examined in conjunction with the Department of Health in the wider context of healthcare provision in the home. The Commission on Disabilities report was published recently.
A person in the home caring for a parent does not qualify for the carer's allowance unless the parent is in receipt of qualifying payments, in particular, disability allowance. The parent may not qualify for disability allowance because of means testing. Therefore, the carer will not qualify for the carer's allowance. There have been improvements in the disability allowance, including a £45 disregard and the opportunity to have the income of an earning spouse included in the calculation of the means test. If the other spouse earns £174 or less, the disabled spouse will qualify for disability allowance and, therefore, the carer will qualify for carer's allowance. However, there are many families who have an income above that and may still not be particularly well off.
One case came to my attention where a daughter aged 18 years left school early to look after her severely disabled mother. Her father earns less than £200 per week and the three of them live together in the family home. In this man's appeal to the Department of Social Welfare he said:
My position today is that my daughter has informed me that she is no longer willing to remain tending to her mother's needs 24 hours a day, without any time for herself or indeed any consideration for the work she is doing. She says she is going to get a flat in the private sector. She is insistent she will qualify for social welfare payments of £64.50.
She will also get a rent allowance. She is determined to take this action if she does not qualify for the carer's allowance. I find it hard to blame her as she can see all her peers going out and enjoying themselves and she is being denied any means of doing this simply because she has to stay at home to look after her mother, and has done so for a number of years. Any action of this nature by my daughter will effectively mean I will have to give up my job. Alternatively I may be forced to have my wife taken into the care of the Mid-Western Health Board, which is a situation I would not relish one bit. I am well aware of the cost to the State of keeping people in care and I am baffled they cannot see the benefit in paying the carer's allowance to people like my daughter.
This is one example where it is likely the family will break up if the man does not give up his job. His wife will have to go into a long stay institution and his daughter will move to a flat. This is not a situation any of us would like to see happen although they are the kind of family who probably will not let it happen. Nevertheless,  when this issue is examined, I would like consideration to be given to people in that position, so that this young girl and others like her who want to stay at home to look after an invalid parent can do so and still have some kind of respectable income.
We know the cost of long stay care and that people get unemployment assistance and rent allowances if they move out of the family home. If they are looking after an elderly or disabled parent, they are not available for work and do not qualify for unemployment assistance. It is an anomaly in the system and one that those in this House would not want to see continue. I welcome the improvements that have been made and I raise this issue in the hope that this type of situation can be addressed in a caring way by the Minister of State and his Department.
Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare (Mr. Durkan): I thank Senator O'Sullivan for raising this issue. The carer's allowance is a social assistance scheme which provides an income maintenance payment to people who are providing elderly or incapacitated pensioners or certain disabled persons with fulltime care and attention and whose incomes fall below certain limits. At the end of September this year, there were 8,088 allowances in payment. Unlike the more restrictive prescribed relative allowance which it replaced, it is not a requirement of the carer's allowance that the carer be related to the person requiring care.
Since its introduction in 1990, the carer's allowance has been improved and expanded progressively over the years. In 1991, the scheme was extended to include people looking after recipients of disability allowance, formerly known as disabled person's maintenance allowance, or an equivalent social security payment from an EU country or a country with which Ireland has a bilateral social security agreement.
A major improvement in the means testing arrangements applying to the carer's allowance came into effect in July 1994. A weekly income disregard of £100 in respect of the spouse's income from either employment or self-employment was introduced. In addition, the existing initial disregard of income of £2 per week was increased to £6. As a result of these improvements, a carer whose spouse was earning £160 per week could qualify for a carer's allowance of £37 per week where previously no allowance would have been payable.
The 1995 budget provided for further significant improvements in the scheme. There is an error about which I will consult the Senator. The disregard of spouse's income was increased to £150 per week and was extended to include other forms of income. The categories of person being cared for were also expanded to include people aged 66, or over, who are in receipt of  non-social welfare pensions, for example, occupational pensioners. Furthermore, all recipients of carer's allowance were given access to the free travel companion pass which allows the carer to travel free when accompanying the person being cared for.
In this year's budget, the weekly personal rate of the carer's allowance was increased by £5 to £67.50 which is an 8 per cent increase on last year's rate. In addition, new regulations have been introduced which change the basis of assessment of means of carers for the purpose of determining entitlement to rent and mortgage interest supplements under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. As a result of these changes, carers who are receiving rent or mortgage interest supplements from the health boards can now benefit by as much as £29 per week. The new regulations also mean that some applicants who previously failed to qualify on the basis of their means will now be in a position to qualify for the allowance.
Despite the improvements which have been introduced in recent years, there is in my view, a clear need for a fundamental review of the scheme with particular reference to current provision for general health care in the home for elderly and disabled people requiring care. That review is being carried out by my Department in conjunction with the Department of Health and will be completed shortly. The review will look at all aspects of the current operation of the carer's allowance having regard to our operational experience of the scheme to date. I have to say, however, that any proposals arising from the review would have to be considered in the light of available resources.
Two important reports published recently made a number of recommendations in relation to the carer's allowance and these will be taken into account in the review. The reports I refer to are the fifth report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Women's Rights entitled “A Long-term Support Framework for Female Carers of Older People and People with Disabilities: 1996 — 2011” and the Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities entitled “A Strategy for Equality”.
I recognise the points raised by the Senator which are part and parcel of the issues the Department comes up against with any scheme when it is operational. It is virtually impossible to determine such snags prior to that. The scheme is under review and I will consult with the Senator on one aspect of the text which may be in error.
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