Ministers accused of 'bullying' carers in efforts to claw back benefit overpayments
Carers are being "bullied" into paying back benefit overpayments despite some being a result of Government errors, MPs have claimed.
The Work and Pensions Committee blasted the Carer’s Allowance system for punishing "honest mistakes" and causing “substantial distress and hardship” by demanding that overpayments, which can be paid in error by the department's own mistake, are returned.
The committee said it was wrong that a carer’s failure to report a rise in their earnings by as little as £1 over the threshold could see them forced to repay the full rate of £66.15 a week.
The MPs said a "long and complex" letter, which provides information on the rules around the benefit fails to mention this to claimants.
They found that the Department is using a computer system which made it “almost impossible” to update the information letter for at least 12 months.
The group said that the Department for Work and Pensions had its “priorities all wrong”, by targeting a section of society which brings in an unpaid contribution of £132bn to the economy each year.
Committee chair Frank Field said: “Carers are damned if they do, damned if they don’t: penalised as soon as they earn even a pound over the threshold, and punished by the Department’s own administrative failures and hopelessly outdated systems.
“The Department sets itself no targets for tackling fraud and error for individual benefits, yet jumps on struggling carers for every honest mistake.
“DWP has got its priorities all wrong. Bullying carers is no way to recognise, much less support, the invaluable contribution they make to our society and the people they care for, or the hundreds of billions of pounds they save the taxpayer."
“Will the Government now please get off the back of carers? They have important work to do."
The Committee found the number of carers is set to rise to 9 million – an all-time-high – and cited a Carers UK report that claimed that 39% of care givers are in financial hardship.
A further 73% on Carer’s Allowance are unable to save for retirement.
The MPs urged the department to consider pursuing overpayments on a case by case basis, and conduct a review of instances where the DWP’s own failures allowed overpayments to accrue.
The inquiry also accused the DWP of an “outdated understanding” of the causes of overpayments in Carer’s Allowance and that fraud analysis of the benefit has not been conducted for over 20 years.
The findings showed that the DWP blamed 80% of overpayments on claimant fraud, while the National Audit Office found less than 10% of overpayment cases were taken to court in the last five years.
One carer with an overpayment of £3,000 told the committee they “accidentally did too many hours” and was charged with fraud without realising they had done anything wrong.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We value the vitally important role carers play in our society and since 2010 we’ve increased Carer’s Allowance so they now receive an extra £635 a year.
“We have made significant progress in addressing Carer’s Allowance overpayments and while we have a duty to the taxpayer to recover money in cases of fraud or error, safeguards are in place to ensure deductions are reasonable.”