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Putting a stop to fines for carers is just the first step

The next Government must deliver social care reform so it no longer needs to lock carers out of work to provide its social care for free.

Recent press reports have set out in chilling terms how the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is demanding tens of thousands of unpaid carers make unaffordable benefit repayments. Demands can amount to tens of thousands of pounds. Some carers are even being threatened with court and prison.

The demands are being made because thousands of 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 me DWP rules are complex and hard to follow. The rules state claimants must be caring for at least 35 hours a week for a relative or friend. Any additional income from a job must not exceed £151 a week.

The DWP considers earnings above the £151 threshold an ‘overpayment’ to the carer which must be recovered. The overpayments typically amount to little more than a few pounds a week. All too often, the DWP is demanding repayment after the overpayments have been allowed to accumulate over many years.

This is inexcusable. The DWP has data-tracking technology in place that should enable HMRC to tell the DWP as soon as a carer has received an overpayment. But in far too many cases, it is slow to act on the data.

This bureaucratic bungling means minor overpayments can build up to eye-watering sums that are completely unaffordable to most carers.

DWP demands for repayment typically affect carers on low incomes who’ve failed to realise they are being paid a few pounds more than the £151 weekly limit. This usually has nothing to do with a carer being negligent.

Overpayments often happen after a carer receives a small pay rise or a small increase in their working hours.

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

They are being pulled in different directions all day long. Many have been driven out of paid work and into poverty because of the time they need to spend on their caring role. Given they’re effectively propping up our social care system, should we really be penalising them for not notifying DWP of a slight rise in their income?

Surely not.  Instead, shouldn’t the onus be on DWP officials to get the minor mistake corrected and to put in place a mechanism which doesn’t then drive that carer into crisis?

That’s a question that seems to have troubled MPs too. As long ago as 2019, they concluded it was administrative failures within the DWP that were largely to blame for the size and volumes of overpayments.

In response, the DWP promised improvements to data-tracking technology that would significantly reduce the problem. However, this simply hasn’t happened. The Guardian reported that as many as 26,700 carers were asked to make repayments to the DWP in 2022-23 alone.

The DWP’s failure to make progress since 2019 demonstrates clearly how both its staffing levels and technology are nowhere near sufficient to help family carers navigate the complexities of Carer’s Allowance.

Surely, therefore, 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.

Given the terrible price so many carers are paying for this mess, the very least the Government should do is to pause the demands for overpayments and enact MPs’ 2019 recommendations, review and reform the current Carer’s Allowance rules and provide clear information to claimants.

Tragically, however, the Carer’s Allowance scandal is only one particularly egregious example among many of successive governments’ wide-ranging disregard of family carers.

Driving all this is a chronic and long term under-investment in social care that has brought the system crashing to the ground. The austerity agenda made a bad situation worse, hollowing out local social care services supporting the sick, frail and disabled.

This failure of the state to fund social care sustainably has had a catastrophic impact on unpaid carers. Carers Trust research has found as many as one in eight carers are now caring an extra 50 hours every week compared to before.

No wonder we’ve also found that over two thirds of unpaid carers have either had to give up employment altogether or drastically reduce their paid work, pushing many into poverty.

The saving to the state and taxpayer thanks to all this free care provided by family carers is a mind boggling £162bn a year. This is probably seen by HM Treasury as a great deal, albeit a shortsighted one given the resulting loss of tax revenue, higher benefit costs and higher costs to the NHS and elsewhere.

You would think the least HM Treasury and DWP could do is make sure that unpaid carers had enough support to survive – but they don’t. Carer’s Allowance, at £81.90 per week, is the lowest benefit of its kind and to qualify you must satisfy labyrinthine rules which mean that it’s terminated as soon as earnings rise above a low level.

It’s not tapered like Universal Credit and isn’t increased in line with comparable benefits. It also locks people out of paid work – you need to do at least 35 hours per week to get the benefit, the equivalent of a full time job.

And as if to push the message home, Rishi Sunak, whilst Chancellor, even excluded those in receipt of Carer’s Allowance from the cost-of-living support.

It’s all pretty incomprehensible. This isn’t a pool of people to whom that age old epithet of the ‘undeserving poor’ could be applied (horrible term as it is), but a group of people who are incredibly hard working and who have sacrificed a great deal to look after their loved ones.

The recent headlines have been a long time coming. This has been a scandal hidden in plain sight for years, and ridiculously so, given that three in five of us will become a carer at some point in our lives.

So the next Government will have 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 they can take action not only to fix the national scandal of social care, but also to give a much fairer deal to family carers.


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