‘Stop bullying carers’: Government must stop chasing carers for old debts, warn MPs
The government must rethink its approach to carers, a damning report from MPs says
Fri, 08/02/2019 – 08:38
Carers are being heavily penalised thanks to “years” of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) administrative errors and even honest mistakes, the Parliamentary Work and Pensions Select Committee says.
The committee has accused DWP of using a “confused and outdated” IT system that cannot even process simple information letters within a year.
The committee says a cliff-edge threshold for overpayment means that even if a claimant earns £1 above the weekly threshold, DWP counts it as overpayment.
Even just earning £1 over the threshold could cause the carer to lose their entire week’s allowance of £66.15, or considered to owe it back to DWP as a debt.
Worse, DWP lets these overpayments build up thanks to endemic administrative failings that have not been rectified for many years.
The burden of reporting a change in income currently falls on the claimant, who receives information on this in a “long and complex” annual letter.
The committee says DWP has access to overpayment information through HMRC but systemic departmental failings mean this has not been tackled at all.
Rt Hon Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, comments: “Carers are damned if they do, damned if they don’t: penalised as soon as they earn even a pound over the threshold, and punished by the Department’s own administrative failures and hopelessly outdated systems.
“The Department sets itself no targets for tackling fraud and error for individual benefits, yet jumps on struggling carers for every honest mistake. DWP has got its priorities all wrong.
“Bullying carers is no way to recognise, much less support, the invaluable contribution they make to our society and the people they care for, or the hundreds of billions of pounds they save the taxpayer.
“Will the Government now please get off the back of carers? They have important work to do.”
In response to the report, A DWP spokesperson says: “We value the vitally important role carers play in our society and since 2010 we’ve increased carer’s allowance so they now receive an extra £635 a year.
“We have made significant progress in addressing carer’s allowance overpayments and while we have a duty to the taxpayer to recover money in cases of fraud or error, safeguards are in place to ensure deductions are reasonable.”
DWP says it will looks through the committee’s report to see if there are any areas where it can make further changes to carer’s allowance.
There are currently around seven million carers in the UK, who make unpaid contributions to the economy worth around £132 billion annually through their work caring for others.
As many as 39% of carers struggle to make ends meet according to Carers UK with 73% of people in receipt of carers allowance unable to afford to save for retirement.
And yet, the issues at hand have been present for more than a decade. Problems with the care allowance system were first brought to light by a whistleblower in 2010.
The report quotes an anonymous carer who gave evidence, having received overpayment of carers allowance of £3,000.
The respondent said: “I have always worked and a few years ago I was put in a position that turned my life upside down. My mum had dementia and Alzheimer’s. I accidentally did too many hours, I was caring for my mum and my mentally ill son and holding down my job, I wasn’t aware that I’d done wrong until I was called for an interview at the job centre.
“I was charged with fraud and taken to court, I was given community service of 180 hours unpaid work as if I didn’t have enough to deal with. My son went into care because I couldn’t cope, and I have now had to give up work and care for mum.
“I had to move in with her and give up my home, my job, my life. I am now having to pay the money back. My own health has suffered, and my finances are rock bottom. I feel my life has been in a downward spiral and I haven’t been able to cope since.”
To fix the failures, the committee has recommended that DWP should:
- conduct a review of the individual cases where it is seeking to recover overpayments of CA and where its own administrative failures have allowed overpayments to accrue.
- consider on a case by case basis whether overpayments are worth pursuing given its culpability, the cost of recouping the overpayments and the impact on the lives of carers and those who they care for.
- start with cases of overpayments worth over £2,500, the majority (two-thirds) of which its internal audit team found it could have detected earlier, and decide whether it should be writing off amounts where the claimant has made an error in failing to report changes in their circumstances: errors that are easily understandable given the complexity of the rules around carers allowance and unclear advice issued by the department.
The committee has also recommended the introduction of a taper on the earnings threshold in order to minimise the effect of the cliff edge on those who go above the limit. DWP has previously rejected this idea, however.