Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
"Millions of people devote a large part of their time, often for many years, to caring for family or friends who are ill or disabled. But the value of the service that these unpaid carers provide to society is not reflected in the quality of the DWP’s arrangements for providing them with financial and other support.
"Carers who apply for benefits should not have to wade through official written guidance and communications which can range from the hard to understand to the downright incomprehensible. And they should not have to be jumping through unnecessary hoops to apply for benefits and allowances.
"Some carers want to combine their caring work with paid employment but Jobcentre Plus has hitherto simply not been geared well towards providing this kind of help. Staff work with a rigid template which does not help them to assess and respond to the inevitable complexity of carers’ circumstances and availability for work. And the Jobcentre Plus target regime does not give Personal Advisers enough incentive to provide customers with part-time work.
"Last year the Department said that it would spend ‘up to £38 million’ on employment support for carers and indeed some two-thirds of this sum has been committed. But, at a time of rising unemployment, the worry is that the remaining third will be diverted away from improving services for well-deserving carers."
Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 42nd Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Work and Pensions (the Department), examined the steps the Department has taken to improve the delivery of benefits to carers and the support it provides to help them find employment.
There are an estimated six million unpaid carers in the United Kingdom looking after family or friends who are sick or disabled. The Department provides two main forms of support to carers -paying carers’ benefits and providing employment support - at an estimated cost of up to £2 billion a year.
The main benefit available to carers is Carer’s Allowance, which is payable to those who give up the opportunity of full-time work to provide care. Carers may also be eligible for Additional Amounts and Carer’s Premiums on top of other benefits such as the State Pension.
At November 2008, 900,000 carers met the entitlement rules and the value of the social care they provided has been estimated by the National Audit Office at £23 billion a year. The Department is unable to assess the effectiveness of its work to reach eligible carers and to specific groups such as ethnic minorities as it does not know the benefit take-up rate.
Benefits for carers are unnecessarily complex and cause confusion. About a fifth of carers who receive benefits have difficulties with some aspect of the application process. These difficulties include understanding the information provided by the Department and also what information they are required to provide.
The system of ‘underlying entitlement’ means some carers have to apply for Carer’s Allowance, even though they are not eligible for it, in order to receive ‘top-up’ payments of Carer’s Premium and Additional Amounts. Complexity is also caused by the interaction of carer’s benefits with benefits received by the person for whom they care. This is because receipt of carer’s benefit can reduce the cared for person’s benefits. The Department’s communications with customers can be lengthy and difficult to understand.
Carers who wish to combine caring responsibilities with paid work do not receive employment support tailored sufficiently to their circumstances. Part-time work is often the most practical option, but the Jobcentre Plus target regime does not provide sufficient incentive for Personal Advisers to help customers find part-time work. In its 2008 National Strategy for Carers, the Department committed to spend ‘up to £38 million’ on support for carers. Some £25 million of the funding has already been committed, but the remaining £13 million may be diverted elsewhere as demand for other Jobcentre Plus services increases at a time of rising unemployment.
Carers’ needs would often be met if the needs of the person being cared for were provided for. This outcome requires effective co-ordination of services between the Department and other organisations in central and local government, as well as the voluntary and community sector. Improving relationships at a local level would make it easier for carers to be referred quickly to the services they need.