Shocking ineptitude at the DWP is failing carers
The lengthy letter sent to carers explaining their benefit fails to inform them of the 'essential fact' that earning £1 over the earnings threshold will lose them their week’s entitlement, writes Frank Field MP.
Damned if they do, damned if they don’t: carers are penalised for just a pound they earn over a cliff-edge income limit and punished by the Department of Work and Pension’s administrative failures and hopelessly outdated systems.
How could the DWP possibly allow someone to accrue close to £50,000 in overpaid Carer’s Allowance? And then tell them it will be on their case for decades clawing it back? People doing their level best to get by – and help someone they care for get by - should not have to suffer as result of such shocking ineptitude.
The Department sets itself no targets for tackling fraud or error for individual benefits - this is despite levels running at an all-time high in the Department’s latest - qualified - accounts.
The DWP then jumps on struggling carers for what are very understandable mistakes.
The lengthy and detailed letter sent to carers explaining the benefit fails to inform them of the essential fact that earning £1 over the earnings threshold will lose them their entire week’s entitlement. A DWP minister and the Permanent Secretary admitted, to our astonishment, that it would take at least a year for the computer system to generate a clearer or more informative version.
7 million people - around one in every 8 of us - rising inexorably as our population ages - care for a partner, parent, friend or disabled child who cannot cope without their support. Most of us will become a carer, or be cared for, at some point in our lives.
Though carers make an estimated contribution of £132bn to the UK economy every year, 39 per cent live in financial hardship and 73 per cent of them are unable to save for their own future retirement. Some of these same people now face years of cuts to their low incomes, thanks to systemic failings, gross incompetence, or a combination of the two, at DWP.
Bear in mind that people eligible for Carer’s Allowance must demonstrate they already do a full time, unpaid job – 35 hours per week - as a carer.
Failure to change the earnings threshold for Carers Allowance in line with the National Living Wage means that carers cannot even take a safe bet on working the magical 16 hours they’ve juggled to stay the right side of tax credit and childcare cliff edges.
Just £1 extra earnings a week will send you crashing over the £123 weekly earnings threshold, costing you the full week’s Allowance of £66.15.
In the decade to 2018 the number of people receiving Carer’s Allowance almost doubled, rising from 471,000 to 826,000. The backlog for processing new claims peaked at 52,000 in September 2017.
As the Department struggled to process new claims, a backlog in processing notifications of changes in weekly income also started to build up. From April 2017 to November 2018, this backlog in processing changes to claims doubled to more than 100,000. Though a whistleblower first raised the alarm within the Department in 2010 – culminating in a complaint to the then Permanent Secretary in 2016 - in 2017 and 2019 the Department’s own internal audit reports found that it still did not have the situation under control.
The outdated design of this benefit sets carers up for this fall. With social care now in widely acknowledged crisis in the UK, this is no time to undermine the already precarious existence of thousands of carers who are saving the Treasury hundreds of billions of pounds.
The Department should start with cases of overpayments over £2,500, and consider writing off amounts where the claimant has simply made a simple mistake in reporting income change: DWP’s internal audit team found it should have detected two-thirds of these mistakes earlier.
The scandal of Carer’s Allowance is a depressing case study of the problems at a Department that seems to have lost its way, with policies all too often divorced from human and economic reality.
Bullying carers is no way to recognise, much less support, the invaluable contribution they make to our society and the people they care for. Will the Government now please get off get off the back of carers? They have important work to do.
Frank Field is Independent MP for Birkenhead and Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions