Families 'struggle' with care costs
The costs of looking after elderly or disabled relatives can push family finances to breaking point, carers claimed.
Helen Ferguson, director of Carers Northern Ireland warned that the current state allowance of £58.75 a week - the equivalent of £1.67 an hour - was totally inadequate and has left thousands of families struggling to cope.
Ms Ferguson said: "The financial support for people looking after loved ones currently isn't enough to stop families falling into debt and financial hardship. Now, on top of this, families who are already struggling face a blizzard of cuts and changes to the benefits system."
In Northern Ireland there are 214,000 carers - a 16% increase over the last 10 years. But, with an ageing population and advances in medicine, caring for an elderly or infirm loved one looks like an increasing reality for many more.
A recent poll by the Carers UK charity showed that eight out of 10 adults in Northern Ireland were worried about the financial impact of giving full time care to a family member.
There was also widespread anxiety about care costs across the UK and more than three-quarters (77%) of people said they would either be unable or would struggle to pay household bills if they had to give up work to care.
It is thought the carers allowance would have to be doubled to around £100 a week to meet the financial demands of modern family life.
DUP MLA Jim Wells who sits on the Stormont health committee said the contribution carers made to society was enormous.
He said: "These tens of thousands of carers are saving the exchequer in Northern Ireland at least £1 billion a year. If they all threw their hands up in sheer exasperation and said to the Health Minister 'you look after them' it would add at least £1 billion and possible £2 billion on to the DHSSPS budget which, quite clearly Northern Ireland Plc cannot afford."
Mr Wells said, while Assembly members felt a huge sense of sympathy for the carers, politicians' hands were tied because the rate of benefit was not a devolved matter. The rate is set by Westminster," he added. "It is a universal benefit that applies to the entire country. So, the amount of leeway we have is limited."