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End the “Persecution” of Unpaid Carers Says DR UK

The Government is facing calls to abandon cruel and nonsensical fines levied on tens of thousands of unpaid carers for unwittingly breaching earnings rules by just a few pounds a week.

Those who claim carer’s allowance, currently £81.90 per week, while working part-time are being forced by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to pay back money that has been erroneously overpaid to them, in some cases running to more than £20,000, or risk going to prison.

Carer’s allowance is paid to those who provide at least 35 hours of unpaid care a week to look after, in the main, Disabled relatives.

While those in receipt of the benefit are allowed to have a second income from a job, there are strict government limits on how much they can earn – currently £151.00 a week.

Overpayments can rapidly build up because even if the weekly earnings limit is exceeded by as little as £1.00, claimants become automatically ineligible for the entire carer’s allowance, resulting in a “cliff edge” repayment penalty.

Back in August 2019, the Work and Pensions Committee published a highly critical report on the DWP handling of carer’s allowance overpayments and accusing the DWP of “bullying and harassing” those who had unknowingly been overpaid the benefit.

The cross-party group of MPs called on the DWP to completely reassess its approach and consider writing off debts due to its own protracted administrative failures.

Although the DWP has IT systems that flag up when a carer’s income breaches the earnings threshold, it fails in many cases to act on the information.

Last week, news emerged of the shocking case of Vivienne Groom who was prosecuted for failing to declare her minimum wage Co-op job while caring for her mother.

She initially agreed to pay the DWP £16,800 in monthly installments of £30, but when she stood to inherit £16,000 from her mother, the DWP sought to seize it using proceeds-of-crime laws.

Mrs. Groom had no legal representation and pleaded guilty over benefit fraud offences. She was sentenced to a community order with unpaid work requirements in November 2023.

This happened, despite the fact that she was told by her social worker that she did not have to tell the DWP about her job.

In addition, the DWP itself would have been told by HMRC that her carer’s allowance entitlement had changed.

Mrs. Groom said: “I followed that lady’s rules and I looked after my mum. I mean, if people look after their parents they should be paid more money so they don’t have to go to work as well. I had to go to work. We had bills to pay.”

Ken Butler, DR UK’s Welfare Rights and Policy Adviser, said:
The fundamental issue is that, despite her carer responsibilities to her mother, due to the low level of benefit she was receiving, Ms Groom needed to work on top of this because she had “bills to pay.

“Those in receipt of carer’s allowance are more likely to be cutting back on food and heating (35%) compared to all carers (25%), according to statistics from Carers UK.

“Meanwhile, nearly 8% of unpaid carers in receipt of carer’s allowance are using food banks to cope with the cost-of-living crisis, compared to 5% of all unpaid carers.

The persecution of unpaid carers like Mrs, Groom must end together with the harsh carers allowance earnings rules.”

Helen Walker, Chief Executive of Carers UK said:
“A wholescale reform and review of Carer’s Allowance and other carers’ benefits is needed to ensure these adequately support unpaid carers during the time they spend caring for someone so that the system does not punish them for misinterpreting complicated and harsh earnings rules.

“It’s shocking that there has been so little investment in the way that carer’s allowance is operated and the tight rules mean that many carers who need it, aren’t getting it. It’s even worse when you consider how much unpaid carers’ support is worth, which is billions every year.”

“We need the systems within the DWP to understand and tackle some of the challenges carers face in claiming benefits much better. We want to see the Department’s research, which they commissioned several years ago and, despite repeated requests, has not been published.

“Thousands of carers have told us that reforming carers’ finances is their top priority. Unpaid carers deserve better from our politicians and they must be a priority for investment.”