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Means test for carer's allowance should be abolished - Penrose

12 July 2018

Speech by Willie Penrose TD
Spokesperson on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Rural & Community Affairs

On behalf of the Labour Party, I am delighted to have the opportunity to support this Bill. I thank Deputy Alan Kelly for allowing me to replace him in doing so. Most Deputies will know that I have been a strong champion for carers for the past 26 years. I have done a lot of work in this area and that will be recognised by people on the ground. The Labour Party wholeheartedly welcomes the extension of eligibility for a GP service without fees to persons in receipt of a carer's allowance payment, although we believe that they should be given full medical cards.

 

In the course of our study, we found that very often a carer ends up in poorer health and in a worse position than the person for whom he or she is caring. In 2002, when I was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, I initiated a review of the aids and assistance available to carers across the country. I had seen the work being done by very elderly people in looking after other elderly people, people with disabilities and young children with varying degrees of infirmity. These people were deteriorating before my eyes and this motivated me to ensure that their lot would be improved and that we, as an Oireachtas, would take this matter seriously. The committee sought submissions, oral and written, and it received 103 from, among others, Care Alliance Ireland and the Carers Association. The committee chose to draft the report rather than employ consultants to do it because, when let loose, all consultants want is to do is collect their €40,000 fee and so on. With due respect to Deputy Donnelly, we should rid ourselves of consultancy involvement in Oireachtas work. I would dump them and thus save a lot of money.

 

The report to which I refer was handwritten by me and the committee in one month. It contained 15 recommendations, only seven of which were implemented. We are all aware of the many reports that are lying around gathering dust. The most seminal recommendation in the report was that carer's allowance at 50% of the personal rate should be paid to people in receipt of qualifying social welfare payments. We broke the taboo that people said could never be broken, namely, that no person could be in receipt of two social welfare payments at once. I am very proud of that achievement. I will not contest the next election, so this will serve as a memento of my time in this House. Everybody said it could not be done. The late Seamus Brennan was Minister at the time and I was agitating from the Opposition benches. I was always agitated and I did more jumping up and down than Deputy Paul Murphy does these days. The late Seamus Brennan told me that if he agreed to what I was proposing, it would open the floodgates. My response was that if the floodgates opened, so be it. This was, and remains, costly but it is only a small token of recognition in terms of the that work carers do. They are the unhung heroes. They work night and day and we exploit and abuse them and take them for granted. We should be collectively ashamed.

 

If I had a bundle of additional money, this is the area to which I would direct it. I would abolish the means test for carer's allowance in order that people would no longer have to be constantly filling out forms. There are 200,000 recognised carers in Ireland but there are many people who did not register as carers on their census forms, which means that the number of carers is probably closer to 350,000. There are carers as young as 16 and 17 years of age who are not recognised and I am acutely aware of that. If we were to pay carers the minimum wage, it would cost us in excess of €5 billion.

 

We have got them on the cheap. Talking about exploitation, we are paragons of virtue as exploiters here. We have effectively abused them. We should significantly increase the carer's allowance in the budget whenever we get to the stage and abolish the carer's allowance means test. It is an objective I have championed since I was first elected to this House. Some people might say it is far too much but let us think what would happen. What would happen if the carers of Ireland downed tools? We already have crises with accident and emergency departments, inpatient services, community hospitals and nursing homes. If they downed tools it would make what we have now look like a picnic. The whole health system would just capsize and collapse overnight. Let us recognise what they do and have done. We all know we can do much more for them.

 

Some 14,000 people will benefit from this provision, which is great. It is like how the snail got from Mullingar to Dublin - by degrees. We will acknowledge and accept every little improvement. However, there is more to be done to use that awful slogan of a political party many years ago. I would say a small bit is done, but there is a bucket-load more to do. No Government of any hue has ever properly recognised the Trojan selfless work of these carers.

 

I know thousands of carers in my Longford-Westmeath constituency and the work they are doing. I know the work that people like Caroline Poole, Denise Nolan and Ann Quinn do. I have met them and spoken to them. I have always fought their cause and always will until I leave this place. Even when I am gone, I will remain a very strong advocate for their cause because it is just and right.

 

The HSE gives organisations such as the Carers Association in Longford and Westmeath peanuts to survive. They are dependent on voluntary donations. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, will remember the Classic Showband. Every August Billy McCauley, a local musician who used to be with the old Classic Showband, has a big Carers Association fundraiser in the Greville Arms Hotel, kindly sponsored by Christy Maye and others. All the top bands across the country come and provide a great night's entertainment to raise money. These organisations should not be reduced to having such fundraisers. They should have a core grant to enable them to carry out their tremendous work in advocacy and providing various things to carers across the area, such as pendants for people living alone. They do a lot of work on the protection of vulnerable people in isolated areas.

 

I am preparing a Bill that I will introduce in September - I am giving Members adequate notice. If it is the last thing I ever do it will be important. It is the carers need assessment Bill. I will be seeking to put this on a statutory footing. There will be no more grace and favours for carers. They will be statutorily entitled to various matters. Let us get this straight. Let us stop doing the grace and favour that we hand out some small thing to them and think it is a great achievement. It is, but let us put it on a statutory footing. From my dealing with carers, I know they are very often under strain.

 

There were 15 recommendations of which seven got implemented. One of them was the payment of the respite care grant, which is now called the carer's support grant. The name is not important; it is the €1,700 that arrives that is the important thing. One has to be there in June; it specifies dates and all of that. That now goes to people who are not in receipt of carer's allowance. There is almost an investigation beyond investigations to try to prove things in respect of people. The point is that it is €1,700 for somebody looking after a person to be able to pay for two or three weeks' respite care. Let us just imagine the cost - we are paying €900 or €950 down in the midlands, it could be €1,200 or €1,500 here in Dublin for nursing home care for a person. Let us look at the balance of the equation and the amount we are saving by paying the carer's support grant for people who do not get carer's allowance. We are paying €228 or whatever it is for carer's allowance. I know it increased by €5, which is gratefully accepted, but more needs to be done. If we were to pay even the minimum wage, it would be the guts of €400 and we have them for just over €200. That is only over a 39-hour or 40-hour week. Those people are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week without respite.

 

This morning I spoke to one of them who is looking after his elderly mother and trying to do a bit of part-time farming while being full-time devoted to his mother. They are the heroes. If we ever do an honours list, we do not want lords, ladies, Bonos or anybody else. We should collect up the 250,000 or 300,000 carers of Ireland and give them all an honour and salute them. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, would want that. Those are the people we should put on a pedestal. They do not look for anything or claim to be great. They are great without ever looking for anything and we should acknowledge that.