22 May 2024

The Carer’s Allowance scandal

The Carer’s Allowance scandal image
Image: MSMStudio / Shutterstock.com.

The Government has a choice, says Kirsty McHugh, CEO of Carers Trust: continue to rely on the unpaid labour of millions of people or take real action to give a much fairer deal to carers.

The past few weeks have revealed in chilling terms how the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is demanding unpaid carers make unaffordable benefit repayments. The DWP now says 134,800 people have a total outstanding Carer’s Allowance debt of £251m, with many pursued for tens of thousands of pounds.

This problem has been top of Carers Trust’s agenda and that of our national network of local carer organisations for many years, but it is only now that the scandal is making national news.

Repayment demands are being made because carers – many unknowingly – have breached complicated DWP benefit rules. These rules govern who qualifies for Carer’s Allowance and how much income a claimant can earn in addition to the meagre allowance of £81.90 a week.

Carers constantly tell their local carer organisation that DWP rules are complex and hard to follow. The rules state claimants must care for at least 35 hours a week for a relative or friend and any additional income must not exceed £151 a week. If a claimant’s earnings exceed that threshold, even by a few pence, Carer’s Allowance is considered an overpayment which must be returned in full. DWP has often allowed these overpayments to accumulate for years before demanding repayment.

This is inexcusable. The onus should be on DWP to get the mistake corrected. The Government has data-tracking technology that can alert the DWP as soon as a carer has received an overpayment. But in many cases, it is slow to act.

This bureaucratic bungling means minor overpayments can build to eye-watering sums, typically affecting carers on low incomes who have not realised they are a just over the £151 weekly limit. We have staff across the country supporting carers facing massive debts and in significant distress.

Life can be unbelievably stressful for carers. As CEO of national charity, Carers Trust, supporting over one million carers every year, I meet people all the time juggling childcare, a job, and caring long hours for a relative or friend with complex needs.

They are pulled in different directions all day long. Many have been driven out of paid work because of their caring role and nearly a third live in poverty. They prop up our health and social care system and yet we choose not only to ration support, but also to punish them for not notifying DWP when there have been tiny increases in income.

It’s an issue that seems to have troubled MPs too. In 2019, they concluded it was DWP administrative failures that were largely to blame for the size and volumes of overpayments.

In response, the DWP promised improvements to data-tracking technology to reduce the problem. This simply hasn’t happened, and carers are now bearing the brunt of administrative failure.

The present headlines mask a wider crisis. We believe it’s time for ministers to acknowledge that Carer’s Allowance has lost its way. It’s neither a recognition of, nor a contribution to, the cost of caring. In the short term, the Government must pause its demands for overpayments and enact MPs’ 2019 recommendations. But post this, it must look afresh at what Carer’s Allowance aims to achieve, rather than remaining the Cinderella benefit.

As a local government audience, I expect (hope!) that you might be asking what you might do to support local carers.

Carers exist in all local government areas and are likely to be in families who are heavier users of services. Most councils will have a local carer organisation on their patch delivering vital services, with whom I hope you work in partnership (and fund!). Good councils will have a live local carer strategy, co-produced with carers themselves. Many will have prioritised carers through income maximisation work and within welfare assistance schemes, such as the Household Support Fund (HSF) or the Welsh Discretionary Assistance Fund. We were active in lobbying for an extension to the HSF and, like local councils, strongly hope it continues.

But saying all this, we can’t pretend that either the local carer support sector or local government can solve these problems alone. The big driving issue for carers is the UK Government’s historic under-investment in social care. The Carer’s Allowance scandal is yet another injustice affecting their lives.

So, Government has a choice. It can continue to rely on the unpaid labour of millions of people, including children, who provide extraordinary levels of unpaid care, or it can take real action to give a much fairer deal to carers.

The new Centre for Young Lives image

The new Centre for Young Lives

Anne Longfield CBE, the chair of the Commission on Young Lives, discusses the launch of the Centre for Young Lives this month.
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