The Government has previously rejected calls from the Work and Pensions Committee for a taper to be introduced to remove this cliff edge.
In the letter from Sarah Newton MP, the Minister makes the baffling case that “whilst we support a taper in Universal Credit, that is because it is a means-tested benefit which is specifically designed to ensure that work always pays. Carer’s Allowance (CA) is a very different benefit and the earnings rules serve a very different purpose”. As Carer’s Allowance is also a means-tested benefit, the main difference appears to be that is not designed to ensure that work always pays. The Chair is asking the Minister to state whether this is in fact her intention.
It has recently been reported that the DWP is pursuing thousands of recipients of Carer’s Allowance for overpayments of the benefit. A letter from the Permanent Secretary, published on 28 November, revealed that in 2017/18, the DWP uncovered overpayments of Carer’s Allowance of up to nearly £50,000; given that the benefit is currently just £64.60 a week, such huge overpayments must have been going on, undetected, for years on end.
Investigating the issue further, the Committee heard how easy it can be for carers to inadvertently go over the earnings threshold, particularly as the information they are given by DWP is long, complicated and unclear. It doesn’t even say that the earnings limit is £120 a week. For people whose earnings are not the same every month, and for self-employed people, it is very easy to make a mistake and go over the limit.
Innocent mistakes left undetected for years on end by the DWP have left carers with the devastating prospect of having to repay enormous overpayments, fines, or even face prosecution. The impact is crippling, financially and emotionally.
Writing to the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Sarah Newton MP, the Chair is demanding answers about overpayments, prosecutions and exactly how the Department has let this happen. The letter includes powerful testimonies from carers gathered through an online survey run by the Committee. Examples include:
One respondent who was caring for their mum and mentally ill son said “I wasn’t aware that I’d done wrong” but accrued an overpayment of Carer’s Allowance. They were taken to court and charged with fraud on top of having to pay back £3,000. They said the experience “turned my life upside down”, “my own health suffered, and my finances are rock bottom”.
One respondent told us that their holiday pay resulted in an overpayment which had to be repaid on top of a fine.
Someone caring for their adult son with autism “did not realise that over a period of just under 2 years, [their] earnings had crept just above the limit”. They explained “with variable income over different periods, the calculations are extremely complicated, and it was not clear to [them] that [they] had gone over the limit”. They had to repay nearly £6,000 plus a fine.
The letter pleads the Minister to read these examples carefully and reflect on carers’ experiences.
Chair of the Committee, Rt Hon Frank Field MP, said:
“Carer’s allowance is fiendishly complex, and as a result carers often—through no fault of their own—fall foul of the Government’s byzantine rules. The Committee has made constructive and sensible recommendations to make the system simpler, which the Government has rejected out of hand. Instead, it is punitively clawing back huge sums from carers who have made honest mistakes.
We’re calling on the Minister to look into what her Department is doing and to put things right.”