Dáil Éireann - Volume 632 - 01 March, 2007
Priority Questions. - Social Welfare Benefits.
Mr. Stanton Mr. Stanton
Mr. Stanton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs whether he will pay all qualified adults directly; his views on reviewing State pension contributory qualification criteria to improve the eligibility chances of older women who have returned to work following many years of homecaring duties; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8199/07]
Mr. Brennan Mr. Brennan
Mr. Brennan: A person who is in receipt of a social welfare payment may claim an increase in respect of a dependent spouse or partner. This increase, known as qualified adult allowance, QAA, is normally paid as a single amount with the primary payment to the claimant. Provision has existed for many years to split the payment and pay the  spouse or partner separately if the recipient so wished, or in cases of difficult family circumstances.
In recent years the question of paying the QAA direct to the adult dependant as the norm has been raised in a number of reports, the intention being to provide the dependant with a level of economic freedom. Significant changes have been made in the social welfare code over the years to ensure that as many people as possible qualify for a social welfare payment in their own right.
In the recent budget, I announced significant improvements in the rate of payment for qualified adults on State pensions and important changes in the way these payments will be made in future. The changes will involve amending the existing arrangements to provide that, in the case of new claimants to the State pension schemes, the qualified adult increase will be paid directly to the qualified adult. Customers who wish to be paid their pension jointly will continue to be facilitated. The revised arrangements will apply to all new applicants to the State pension schemes with effect from 24 September 2007.
The position regarding payments to people of working age is less straightforward and a separate payment may not be appropriate for certain schemes. It is open to a dependent spouse or partner to claim payments such as jobseeker’s allowance in his or her own right subject to satisfying means and other conditions.
The social welfare pension rights of those who take time out of the workforce for caring duties are protected by the homemaker’s scheme which was introduced in 1994. The scheme allows up to 20 years — from 1994 — spent caring for children or incapacitated adults to be disregarded when a person’s social insurance record is being averaged over his or her full working life for pension purposes. Provision is also made for the award of credited contributions in the year in which a person commenced or ceased to be a homemaker.
The homemaker’s scheme will not of itself qualify a person for a pension. The standard qualifying conditions for State pension contributory, which require a person to enter insurance ten years before pension age, pay a minimum of 260 contributions at the appropriate rate and achieve a yearly average of at least ten contributions from the time they enter insurance until they reach pension age, must also be satisfied.
A review of the homemaker’s scheme and other issues relating to social welfare pensions is taking place in the context of the forthcoming Green Paper on pensions which is expected will be finalised by the end of March 2007. A consultation process will then take place and the Government will publish a framework for future pensions policy on foot of this.
Mr. Stanton Mr. Stanton
Mr. Stanton: I thank the Minister for his response. He stated only new claimants will qual ify automatically. Does he have plans to extend the scheme to existing claimants?
Does the Minister agree the impact of the marriage bar is now being felt and it is most unfair? Prior to 1973, women employed in the public service were forced to give up their jobs and to attend to homemaking duties. Because of that, women who are now reaching retirement age find they are without a pension in their own right. They suffer doubly if they went back to work for a short period before they retired. Does the Minister have a view on this situation? Is he aware of the number of women who were affected by the marriage bar and how many women are affected by it today and does he have any plans to make changes in this regard?
Does the Minister agree the averaging rule to which he referred is most unfair because it takes into account the years women spent in the home? Does he also agree that the work carried out by the women at that time was extremely valuable? They reared the Celtic tiger generation at home. They had no choice in the matter. Does the Minister further agree if the situation were to exist today it would be deemed to be unconstitutional?
Mr. Brennan Mr. Brennan
Mr. Brennan: I confirmed the commencement date for the revised arrangements would apply to new applicants from September 2007. It is not proposed at this point to include existing recipients, although I would like to do so. The Department informed me it could take some time to do that. We will commence with new applicants and I hope in time policy will develop so we can extend this facility to existing recipients also. I am pursuing the important policy objective that payments would be made to people in their own right.
The question of pensions cover for women who left employment as a result of the marriage bar has arisen on many occasions in recent years. The case is often made that they were penalised at the time they left their employment and they are being further penalised for the fact they have no pension rights. At the time, the women in question were paid a marriage gratuity and the Department of Finance has confirmed that this was considered a payment in lieu of pension rights. That is the legal position.
In general, the social insurance class paid by those affected by the marriage bar was a modified rate which now gives coverage for widows’ and guardians’ payments, occupational injury benefit, bereavement grant and carer’s benefit only. This class of insurance reflected their occupational pension position and general contract of service at the time. Accordingly, even if the women concerned had continued in employment, contributions made at this class would not have entitled them to a contributory pension under the social welfare scheme.
In the social welfare context, the arguments in this area have focused on the question of backdating the homemaker’s scheme which was intro duced in 1994 and which, in line with practice in regard to new schemes and changes in insurability, operate from a current date. The issue of homemakers is being examined in the context of the Green Paper on pensions to which I referred earlier. It should be finalised by the end of this month.
Mr. Penrose Mr. Penrose
Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs his views on abolishing the means test for the carer’s allowance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7924/07]
Mr. Brennan Mr. Brennan
Mr. Brennan: Carer’s allowance is a social assistance payment paid to people who are providing full-time care and attention to a person in need of such care. In line with other social assistance schemes, a means test is applied to the carer’s allowance so as to ensure resources are directed to those in greatest need. This means test has been eased significantly over the years. Following budget 2006, the earnings disregard for a couple was set at €580 per week, which is equivalent to gross average industrial earnings. In budget 2007, I increased this to €640 per week for a couple from April 2007.
This increase means a couple with two children will be able to earn in the region of €36,000 per year and still qualify for the maximum rate of carer’s allowance as well as the associated free travel and household benefits. This measure exceeds the commitment in Towards 2016 to ensure those on average industrial earnings can continue to qualify for a full carer’s allowance.
In addition, I have increased the rates of carer’s allowance to €200 per week for those aged under 66 and to €218 per week for those aged over 66. From June 2005, the annual respite care grant was extended to all carers who are providing full-time care to a person in need of such care, regardless of their income. Those persons in receipt of other social welfare payments, excluding jobseeker’s assistance and benefit, are entitled to this payment, subject to meeting the full-time care condition. From June 2007, the level of the grant will increase by €300 to €1,500 per year.
It is estimated that complete abolition of the means test for carer’s allowance would cost over €140 million in a full year. There are differing views on this, with some support organisations strongly of the view that if this level of resources were available, it would be more beneficial to carers if it were invested in further increases to carer’s allowance and in the type of community care services which would support them in their caring role.
The primary objective of the social welfare system is to provide income support. As a general rule, only one weekly social welfare payment is payable to an individual. Persons qualifying for two social welfare payments receive the higher payment to which they are entitled. I am aware this has been a cause of particular concern to  people in receipt of a social welfare payment when they become carers.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
For that reason I was very pleased to introduce fundamental structural reforms in this area in budget 2007 under which people in receipt of certain social welfare payments, for example a widow’s pension, who are providing someone with full-time care and attention will be able to retain their main payment and receive an additional payment, depending on their means, of up to a half rate carer’s allowance. I have provided for these new arrangements in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill, which is currently before the Oireachtas.
I again reiterate my commitment to working for and with carers to deliver increased benefits, supports and services for them and their families.
Mr. Penrose Mr. Penrose
Mr. Penrose: The Minister knows the Labour Party position. We are unequivocally committed to abolishing the means test for carers. There are thousands of people in the country with a job that has a mandatory 365 days a year contract, with no leave, holidays or bonus. Who are these people? They are carers who provide unpaid help for a family member or friend with a disability. Almost half of these carers have no paid employment and one third of them give more than 43 hours of unpaid time per week. Less than one fifth receive financial assistance from the State for their invaluable and tireless work.
The facts speak for themselves. There are only 150,000 carers in Ireland. The recent report by the National Economic and Social Forum indicates that unpaid care saves the Exchequer up to €2 billion every year. Carers are saving the State a vast amount that would arise if those people needed institutional care, without considering the capital expenditure needed to build such facilities. It is a no-brainer.
How much money is spent by the Department administering the means test? Is it not an expensive process? Savings from the abolition of the means test would be offset against the cost of a commitment the Labour Party would give to abolish the means test for carers. Abolishing the means test is a clear way of recognising the invaluable role of carers in our community and supporting them.
A post office at Park Road, Killarney, closed after Christmas. Pensioner, carer and invalidity books were taken when presented at the New Street post office and people were advised that the books would be returned the following week. Today, most of the pension books are not available and people are being sent to community welfare officers, who are not aware that all these people will be arriving. The staff at the post office have had no communication from the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
 What communication has the Department of Social and Family Affairs had with the post office staff? When will the situation be clarified for social welfare recipients? Have the community welfare officers been given details of the people who will approach them for assistance? The Minister may not have the answer immediately but it is important that the Department of Social and Family Affairs deals with this in its usual humane, compassionate way.
Mr. Brennan Mr. Brennan
Mr. Brennan: If I announced the abolition of the means test for carers, the Labour Party would have to amend its manifesto. Deputy Penrose would be the most disappointed man in the House if I announced that move. The Deputy feels passionately about this and has managed to put the issue at centre stage in his party, on which I compliment him.
I have an open mind on the matter. Sometimes it is better to raise thresholds and disregards and one must choose between these measures while retaining the means test or introducing a universal carers allowance. At some point the means test will not be worth a candle but one must be careful when drawing the line. One must not give valuable State money through the welfare system to people who do not need it. This will happen with a universal system. I am aware that it costs four times as much to care for someone in residential care as it does in the person’s home. At some stage, retaining a means test will no longer make sense.
I will ask the Department to examine the situation in Killarney and revert to the Deputy.
Dáil Éireann 632 Priority Questions. Social Welfare Benefits.